Since 1960, the Democrats were the party that nominated new generation candidates. Three of them — Kennedy, Clinton and Obama — won the White House. Republicans nominated old guys, whether they lost — think Dole, McCain and Romney — or won, like Ronald Reagan. But this year, the geezers are on the Democratic side. Hillary Clinton is 67, Bernie Sanders is 74 and, if he gets in, Joe Biden is 72. On the Republican side, for a change, it's a completely different story.
There are several Republicans under 50 running this year. Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz and, until he dropped out, Scott Walker. But Rubio is the only one who has made his youth the centerpiece of his campaign. Rubio is running as the fresh new face, the 21st century Republican. And he never misses a chance to talk about it. At the Values Voter Summit, he famously announced the retirement of John Boehner, which was followed by 30 seconds of cheering. But what he said right after that prolonged celebration of Boehner's demise was even more important. As the cheers died down, he said:
"It is important at this moment with respect to him and the service that he's provided to our country — it's not about him or anybody else. And I'm not here today to bash anyone. But the time has come to turn the page. The time has come to turn the page and allow a new generation of leadership in this country."
Rubio is a disciplined communicator and he's always on message.
There are different ways of channeling the anger that is the overriding sentiment in the GOP electorate right now. Donald Trump has his way, and Rubio has his. Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson, who is from Rubio's home state of Florida, says Rubio is "trying to harness this very anti-status quo, anti-establishment frustration but channel it in a way that will have an appeal across generations."
Rubio did exactly that in the last GOP debate. He was asked about Donald Trump's criticism of candidates who speak Spanish and he said, "I want to tell you a story about my grandfather":
"My grandfather instilled in me the belief that I was blessed to live in the one society in all of human history where even I, the son of a bartender and a maid, could aspire to have anything, and be anything that I was willing to work hard to achieve. But he taught me that in Spanish, because it was the language he was most comfortable in. And he became a conservative, even though he got his news in Spanish. And so, I do give interviews in Spanish, and here's why — because I believe that free enterprise and limited government is the best way to help people who are trying to achieve upward mobility.And if they get their news in Spanish, I want them to hear that directly from me. Not from a translator at Univision."
There's a lot packed in there. In one fell swoop Rubio managed to remind everyone that:
1. He's young
2. He respects the wisdom of his elders
3. He speaks Spanish
4. He's the child of immigrants
And, most important of all:
5. He knows how to translate conservative beliefs into everyday language.
Rubio manages to sound modern — something Republicans have struggled with.
He got a big boost from his crisp performance in that debate. He's now in the top tier of what's been called the "conservative but sane" lane of the GOP field.
He has some of the highest favorable ratings of the GOP field and he's the candidate with the lowest numbers of Republicans who say they would never vote for him. Democrats say privately that he is the candidate they fear the most in a general election.
So, maybe after losing with older candidates like Dole, Romney, and McCain, Republicans are ready for something new.
But for Rubio to win the nomination he'll have to beat a bunch of other candidates, including his mentor Jeb Bush. There's only room for one Floridian on the ticket. Rubio is now beating Bush in national and state polls, including Florida.
On Thursday, Bush fired the first shot in what could become a bitter generational battle between two old friends. He said on MSNBC that Rubio did not have the leadership skills to fix things — translation — he's too young and inexperienced.