Op-Ed

Is there room for two Florida heavyweights?

ABRAMS
ABRAMS

No Floridian has come close to being the President of the United States. Now with the 2016 presidential election rapidly approaching, two talented Florida politicians, Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush are actively considering candidacy for the White House.

For political junkies this is theater too good to be true: Protégé vs. mentor, baby boomer vs. generation Xer, member of a great American political family challenged by a young Cuban American.

Few people know that Marco Rubio has always admired Robert F. Kennedy, at least stylistically. Just as RFK in the 1968 was the iconic, poetic political leader of the anti-war baby –boomers, Rubio is one of the princes of the tea party movement. It would be an injustice to call Rubio’s uncanny timing pure luck, but there is no doubt that his rapid rise from West Miami councilman, to House Speaker to U.S. senator has been lightning fast. Rubio’s powerful political trajectory, combined with being a dedicated, married father of four has left him little time to develop a career outside of politics.

The central challenge for Rubio is will voters again trust a young, charismatic politician whose world experience has been centered in government.

When I retired from the State Legislature in 1994, I left a government where the Legislature was the dominant branch and the House was controlled by a declining Democratic majority. Jeb Bush became governor in 1998 and by force of personality, intellect and with a compliant Republican majority in both legislative chambers, made the executive branch the agenda-setter in state government.

I watched in awe as Bush restructured governance, challenged the delivery of education and left his mark in virtually every major policy area. While I disagreed with many of his reforms, there is no denying that Jeb Bush belongs in the pantheon of one of Florida’s most effective governors.

This did not happen by accident or birthright either. Bush labored long and hard in building the Florida Republican Party, working on his father’s campaigns, serving as chairman of the Dade County Republican Party and then later as Commerce Secretary under Gov. Martinez. For better or worse, his policy changes are still being felt and his political reach is everywhere in Florida. As outlined in a front-page story about his loyalists in the Herald on Monday, there is no doubt the Florida Republican political establishment is excited by a Bush candidacy.

So where does that leave Rubio? He has taken on the whole establishment before. It was pretty lonely in 2009 when Marco’s campaign for the Senate against then Republican Gov. Crist almost folded for lack of funds. It’s conceivable, though, that Bush was quietly telling his network to support his young protégé, because Crist could not be trusted.

Those of us old enough to have protégés know that it is a natural for them to grow out of their mentors’ shadows. Sometimes, it happens organically, other times it can be ugly. The Kennedys, Clintons and Bushes are the three great political families of our lifetime because they command and demand loyalty.

So it is also natural for Bush’s people feel like this is Jeb’s last shot, and Marco Rubio should defer to him.

Last week, Bush announced a Presidential Exploratory Committee, heightening expectation he will run, but also leaving a major escape valve not to. And President Obama’s breakthrough announcement on normalizing relations with Cuba, gives Rubio a national stage to burnish his foreign-policy credentials on an issue he knows and is passionate about. Both men dominated Sunday’s news shows. Rubio did not deny he might run, leaving Floridians — and the nation — with an epic drama. It is going to be fascinating to watch.

Presidential politics is notoriously unpredictable and the process of getting elected is unforgiving, so don’t be surprised if only one man runs. I will leave the political calculus to the political consultants, but I can tell you this, Republicans denying increasing friction between the two camps are not credible. The one thing you can be sure of is Rubio will not be celebrating the holidays this year with the Bush family in Kennebunkport.

Mike Abrams is former chairman of the Dade Democratic Party, former state legislator and currently a policy adviser to Ballard Partners.

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