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For Marco Rubio, the path to 2016 needs careful steps

Imagine a tightrope. Thin, taut and unforgiving.

It begins here, and stretches all the way to 2016.

Now welcome to Marco Rubio's commute.

A new year has barely begun, and already the Republican darling of Future Elections is precariously balancing between us-and-them, then-and-now, here-and-there.

It will be a nifty trick if he can pull it off. And the potential landing spot — an oval office in a white house — certainly makes the journey enticing.

But if the first few days of 2013 are any indication, Rubio will be in for a long and challenging haul.

Take the fiscal cliff. Rubio has been talking up the middle class for weeks and weeks, and yet his thumbs-down on the fiscal cliff bill can cynically be interpreted as support for tax increases for every employee in America or simple political grandstanding.

And then there's immigration reform. The GOP is looking to Florida's senator for direction on this critical issue, and yet so many protesters descended on his Orlando office Thursday that police asked some to wait outside. Wow, Rubio's staff heard their concerns.

Meanwhile Jeb Bush, another Republican sweetheart from Florida, is announcing his book on immigration reform will be out in early March.

Good news, only 1,401 days to go until the next presidential election!

Granted, this was an extraordinary week for politics. And Rubio is sure to have many more good days than bad in the coming months.

But if anyone in his office thought the next 46 months were going to be an endless loop of photo ops and speeches in Iowa, the past week probably dissuaded them.

There is no doubt Rubio can be a legitimate contender in 2016. You need only watch his speech at a Jack Kemp Foundation event last month to understand the power of his narrative and the appeal of his personality.

But, unlike Bush, he cannot spend the next few years looking statesman-like on the sidelines. And, unlike Chris Christie, he can't legislate with executive-like authority.

So Rubio has to move forward with precision. With care. And probably with more deft direction than in recent days.

It may have been tea party-style politics that delivered Rubio to the Senate, but those concepts are not going to bring him to the presidency. And the longer he tries to appease that wing of the party, the harder it will be to avoid looking like a fringe candidate.

That fear of the far right may explain why, two years later, he still hasn't come up with anything approaching immigration reform. President Obama cut in line with his DREAM Act proposal, and now Bush is ready to go national with his own reforms.

Meanwhile, Rubio has talked about tackling immigration a little at a time. His position is that the issue is too large to handle in one sweeping piece of legislation because that will invariably lead to distasteful compromises. Okay, fair enough.

But, as the protesters in his office indicated, there haven't even been incremental reforms proposed yet.

Rubio's positioning on the fiscal cliff looks even worse. He was one of a handful of Republican senators who voted against a bill that extended Bush era tax breaks on 98 percent of America.

Among his reasons was the bill did not include spending cuts, and so it was not the comprehensive reform needed to straighten out the economy. Yet that reasoning ignores the upcoming debt ceiling debate, and flies in the face of his immigration philosophy that says huge problems cannot be solved in a single comprehensive bill.

The bottom line is that Rubio's position on the fiscal cliff may have endeared him to hardliners on the right, but it shows zero willingness to compromise and no sense of responsibility as a leader. Not exactly a presidential moment.

Conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post called his nay vote a showboat move and suggested Rubio needs to decide whether he wants to further a true conservative agenda or be a lapdog of the "conservative racket that thrives on the politics of outrage and victimhood.''

The good news for Rubio is his fiscal cliff vote was inconsequential to the process (which may also explain his position) and he still has an opportunity to move to the forefront on immigration.

He'll still be navigating a tightrope on a lot of upcoming issues, but the walk will be much easier if Rubio ever decides to widen his base.

For Marco Rubio, the path to 2016 needs careful steps 01/05/13 [Last modified: Saturday, January 5, 2013 10:16pm]
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