Marco Rubio is running for president. Or, at least, that is the conclusion I drew from watching him give a speech on foreign policy at Chatham House in London, on Wednesday. The senator from Florida has not actually declared his candidacy yet. But giving “statesmanlike” speeches on world affairs in London is the kind of thing you do, if you want to burnish your credentials as a potential commander-in-chief.
So how did Rubio go down? Well, the audience was satisfyingly large – people were literally standing in the aisles. The senator himself gave a performance of two halves: a terrible speech, but a confident performance in the Q&A.
The problem with the speech, as I saw it, was that it was too redolent of George W. Bush circa 2003. It was full of windy tributes to Britain and America‘s shared tradition of fighting for liberty, Churchill and Roosevelt, the “special relationship”, the “will and moral courage of free men and women”, our best days lie ahead … etc, etc. I am sure it was all well-meant. It may even have been sincere. But while, on one level, it was obviously flattering to a British audience, that kind of rhetoric is still suffering from Bush and Blair’s misuse of it, in the run up to the Iraq war. Perhaps there will soon be some global crisis – in which Britain and America once again stand shoulder-to-shoulder – and we can listen to the old numbers about the “special relationship” and the fight for freedom, without any sense of discomfort or irony. But that moment has not yet arrived. And I thought the audience’s tepid applause at the end of Senator Rubio’s speech, reflected that feeling.
By contrast, Rubio got a much warmer round of applause, after a more confident performance answering questions. He didn’t say anything particularly startling. But he demonstrated that he thinks quickly and is well informed. I asked him where he placed himself in the Republican firmament, between the interventionist John McCain and the isolationist, Rand Paul – and specifically, how he would have voted on missile strikes in Syria. Naturally enough, he dodged the question, saying that the division between “hawks and doves” belongs to the cold war, and that he is in favour of a “strategic foreign policy”. Aren’t we all? But the senator did volunteer that he would have voted against strikes on Syria, on the grounds that they were pinpricks, without a proper strategy behind them.
From a British perspective, his speech contained an interesting assertion that he took no position on British membership of the EU and that it is up to the US to respect whatever decision the British people make. This was obviously a repudiation of the Obama administration’s position, which is to make it pretty clear that America wants Britain to stay inside the EU.
But, for me, his most interesting answer was about the American dream. Rubio said that his father and mother had been able to make it into the American middle class, while working as a bartender and a maid but that would no longer be possible. He rejected the idea of an increase in the minimum wage as the answer but acknowledged that the threat to the American middle class is a growing problem. Interesting subject – I might write about it, for my column next week.
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