Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

A kinder, gentler, wiser Marco Rubio

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
February 13, 2013 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Marco Rubio presented GOP response to Obama's State of the Union
  • Ruben Navarrette: Rubio came across positively, appealing to broad range of people
  • He says Rubio counters the argument that the GOP is the party of the wealthy
  • Navarrette: How much of Rubio's switch on immigration is real?

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.

(CNN) -- Sen. Marco Rubio was ready for his close-up, and he got it. Now you know what all the fuss is about.

Rubio, a rising star and possible 2016 GOP presidential hopeful, was picked to deliver the official Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union Address.

The selection tells you a lot about what the Republican Party has in store for Rubio, and what this 41-year-old son of Cuban immigrants can do for a party that needs to become more user-friendly for Latinos. His remarks were also delivered in Spanish.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Rubio's delivery was solid, his voice strong, and his passion unmistakable. The senator from Florida is an excellent communicator whose life experience -- as the son of a bartender and hotel maid who worked hard so their children could get ahead -- is easy for many Americans to connect with. In the Republican Party, there are the multimillionaires -- and then there is Marco.

And the message that Rubio sought to communicate Tuesday night -- about how making America prosperous comes from growing the middle class, expanding opportunity and protecting economic freedom, and not from increasing the footprint of government -- came through loud and clear.

LZ Granderson: Rubio missed the year of the woman

Rubio knows that the Republican Party has a reputation as the party of the rich. That happens when you nominate as your party's presidential candidate someone worth $250 million.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



So he had this message for Obama:

"Mr. President, I still live in the same working-class neighborhood I grew up in. My neighbors aren't millionaires. They're retirees who depend on Social Security and Medicare. They're workers who have to get up early tomorrow morning and go to work to pay the bills. They're immigrants, who came here because they were stuck in poverty in countries where the government dominated the economy. The tax increases and the deficit spending you propose will hurt middle-class families. It will cost them their raises. It will cost them their benefits. It may even cost some of them their jobs. And it will hurt seniors because it does nothing to save Medicare and Social Security. So Mr. President, I don't oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors."

That is the sweet spot. Rubio understands that the best hope of the Republican Party is for it to establish itself as the party not of the rich, but of those who aspire to one day be rich.

And speaking of immigrants, Rubio already has one accomplishment in that arena -- albeit an indirect one. Obama's supporters like to tout his announcement last June that his administration would offer young illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children the chance to avoid deportation by applying for deferred action and a temporary work permit. What they forget to mention is that the only reason that Obama did this was because Rubio was working on a bill that would have offered this group of young people permanent relief by giving them legal status.

GOP's Rubio rips Obama

Now Rubio is part of a bipartisan group of senators, the "group of eight," that wants to tackle immigration reform by, among other things, offering the undocumented an earned pathway to citizenship. It's not something that Rubio -- who used to have the support of the tea party but no longer appears to, at least on immigration -- would have considered a few years ago.

Marco Rubio profiled: GOP response
Marco Rubio's dry mouth moment

This is a kinder and gentler Marco, and also a wiser one. When he entered the Senate, he expressed support for the ghastly immigration law in Arizona, which has served as a recipe for racial profiling of Latinos. He also opposed the DREAM Act, which would have offered legal status to young illegal immigrants who went to college or joined the military.

But in January 2012, I saw Rubio give a speech in Miami that gave me hope that he was coming around. He talked about how the Republican Party could not just be the party that opposed illegal immigration but also had to be the party that encouraged legal immigration. And he acknowledged something that too few Republicans have the guts to admit -- that there are those in their party whose tone, on this issue, is much too mean and intolerant and divisive for their own good.

Talk Back: Is giving the State of the Union response a political 'kiss of death'?

Honestly, I don't know how much of this is real and how much has been manufactured by Team Rubio in advance of a possible run at the presidency. On immigration, there is a long list of politicians -- in both parties -- who have undergone extreme makeovers. Obama has been on multiple sides of the issue, deporting DREAMers one minute and offering them a reprieve the next. Rubio wouldn't be the first to change his tune.

Overall, Rubio established himself as a force to be reckoned with, in the Republican Party and beyond. His detractors -- most of them loyal Democrats and Obama supporters -- were anxious to find fault with his remarks, but he gave them little to work with.

There was that one awkward moment near the end where Rubio, his voice cracking and his throat dry, quickly reached for a bottle of water. Social media lit up. His critics joked that the gesture was such a terrible distraction that Americans should just ignore the whole speech.

Really? The water didn't bother me. But Rubio's remarks did make me thirsty for new leadership in the White House.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 13, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
To prevent war with North Korea over a comedy, what would Dennis Rodman say to Kim Jong Un? Movie critic Gene Seymour weighs in.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
ADVERTISEMENT