It seems not a day goes by without Florida Senator Marco Rubio being mentioned as the favorite choice for vice president among Republicans in Washington. Even talk radio’s Rush Limbaugh weighed in when he said Senator Rubio should run for president in 2012.
It is true that Senator Rubio has certain political assets, including his ability to “attract” Latino voters due to his Cuban heritage. He also is conservative, smart, and a good speaker. And he hails from a state that is considered the mother of all battleground states for 2012. What’s not to like if you are a Republican looking toward the future?
Nothing — except for the fact that the 39-year-old Rubio was just sworn into the United States Senate on January 3, 2011.
Is the Republican Party so devoid of leadership that a newbie senator with no previous national or gubernatorial experience would even be considered presidential or VP material after only four months in Washington?
Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Worse, Rubio is about to be entangled in a political phenomenon I call GEAR, which stands for Gender-Ethnicity-Age-Race.
The GEAR phenomenon is when a candidate is chosen to be on a presidential ticket because he or she possesses one or more of the Gender-Ethnicity-Age-Race factors that are considered politically advantageous at the time of selection.
Let’s examine the history of GEAR on recent presidential tickets and see if there are any “teachable moments” for Senator Rubio in 2012.
The GEAR factor of “G” for gender first appeared on the 1984 presidential ticket with the selection of New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as the first female vice-presidential candidate. (Ferraro passed away on Saturday at 75.) She was chosen by the Democrat presidential nominee, Walter Mondale, to spruce up the ticket, make history, and attract women voters. Granted, she did make history, but not with women voters, who in 1984 went for Reagan by 59% vs. 42% for Mondale.
One could say riding the big “G” in GEAR turned into a big flop for Ferraro.
She was unknown nationally, never caught fire on the ticket and, after giving up her congressional seat to run for VP, never held elective office again. (Although she tried in 1992 and 1998 for a New York Senate seat, she lost both races at the primary level.)
Four years later, in 1988, the GEAR factor of “A” for age surfaced when the Republican presidential nominee, Vice President George H.W. Bush, selected Indiana Senator Dan Quayle as his running mate.
Vice President Bush thought his ticket needed a little less gray hair so he plucked a handsome, unknown 41 year old out of the Senate and basically ruined Quayle’s career. Quayle’s candidacy provided a great addition to the political lexicon through that famous line from Senator Lloyd Bentsen in the 1988 VP debate — “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” — after Quayle compared his Washington experience to Senator Kennedy’s in 1960.
Nevertheless, Bush/Quayle won the White House in 1988 and Quayle served as VP. But he soon became the butt of national jokes — many self-inflicted.
Since everyone knew the GEAR factor of age was the key reason for Quayle’s selection as VP in 1988 and because Quayle was generally seen as a poor choice, President Bush was urged to drop Quayle from the 1992 ticket.
However, Bush refused, Bush/Quayle was defeated by Clinton/Gore, and Dan Quayle was practically never heard from again. (Although his son Ben was elected to Congress in 2010 and is trying to “restore” the family name.)
After the Dan Quayle fiasco, it took 20 years, from 1988 to 2008, for the GEAR phenomenon to surface again and surface it did on both national tickets.
On the Democrat side in the 2008 presidential election, the “R” factor of race was front and center after Barack Obama, who was sworn in as a United States senator on January 4, 2005, declared on February 10, 2007, that he was running for president of the United States.
Obama definitely wins the GEAR factor gold medal.
For if Obama’s father had been Caucasian instead of African, it would have been nearly impossible for a sophomore senator from Illinois to have wrestled the democratic nomination away from iconic front-runner Hillary Clinton, and then go on to win the presidency.
(Note that Hillary Clinton also had a “G” for gender factor but was not considered a GEAR candidate due to her years of political experience.)
But Obama, as a GEAR candidate with the historic “R” factor combined with the “A” for age factor, was compelling enough for the media to act as his biggest cheerleader, thus propelling him to victory in 2008.
Only time will tell if his presidency will be a success or a failure. Certainly at this juncture Republicans think it has been a disaster, with Obama’s lack of executive and foreign policy experience being key reasons. The question remains if the GEAR factor of “R” will loom as large and generate similar favorable media coverage for Obama’s 2012 re-election bid.
For the Republicans in 2008, Senator McCain wanted a game-changing VP pick (“high-risk, high-reward”) so he selected unknown (at the time) Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who had been in office less than two years. Palin brought the “G” for gender factor and the “A” for age factor (she was 44) and along with her conservative credentials helped energize the conservative base for the fall election.
Unfortunately, like Mondale’s false thinking that Ferraro would bring him women voters in 1984, McCain had the same illusions with Palin and the ticket went on to lose the women’s vote to Obama by a whopping 57% to 43%.
GEAR factors may have played a huge role in Palin’s selection as VP, but she later propelled herself into national prominence. As of this writing, Palin’s future in elective office is unknown but her bank account is definitely a winner.
Now with the GEAR phenomenon in historical context, let’s swing back to Senator Marco Rubio’s prospects for 2012.
The newly minted Florida senator of Cuban descent brings the GEAR factor of “E” for ethnicity to a party that is desperately trying to win Latino and Hispanic voters.
Also, in 2012 Rubio will be 41 years old, thus helping bring the “A” for age factor to a party that lost the under 30 vote to Obama in 2008 by 61% to 39% and the 30-49 year old vote by 53% to 47%.
Certainly, there is no disputing that Senator Rubio is an attractive conservative candidate with a very bright future. That is why Washington collective wisdom thinks Rubio will be offered the VP slot no matter who tops the ticket.
But the question is: should Rubio accept a VP slot in 2012 as a GEAR candidate with its high-risk, high-reward, and sometimes unhappy career-ending scenarios?
By August of 2012 he will have served in the U.S. Senate less than two years. Obama ran for president after serving just two years, so using the Obama Senate time table Senator Rubio is just about ripe for the VP ticket.
You can almost hear the arguments that will be waged on cable and talk radio.
Rubio’s decision will be made even more difficult and tempting by the Republican National Convention being hosted in his home state of Florida, in the city of Tampa.
So will Rubio be able to resist the gravitational power pull, wait until he has completed at least one full term in the Senate, and become better known nationally?
Some Republican strategists believe Rubio should wait until he has more seasoning and is in a position to win the top spot on a future presidential ticket.
Since Rubio has all the makings of a terrific non-GEAR candidate and time is on his side, I hope he refuses that siren call from the top of the Republican ticket in 2012.
For becoming a GEAR candidate can be risky and unforgiving whether you win or lose.