Cuba Normalization May Spark Bush, Rubio Campaigns

Jeb Bush at the RNC

Cuba Normalization May Spark Bush, Rubio Campaigns
| published December 20, 2014 |

By R.Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Nothing that happens in Washington—nor anything that flows from the capital and into the national conversation—is coincidental. All things that pass are by design—someone’s design.

Thus it is that President Barack Obama’s recent decision to normalize relations with Cuba, long the scourge of the United States in the Caribbean Basin and Central America, and for even longer a resilient holdout against the final collapse of communism and the Soviet Union, came with a predictably heated range of opinions. And thus the expected responses—pro and con—have come at moments of great political opportunity for all the players involved.

The conventional narrative—arguably reasonable and probably overdue—is that generationally-speaking that standoff, a sort of fusion of quarantine, embargo and forced isolation, has long ago outlived its usefulness. The Cold War is over, the Berlin Wall has come down, a once-mighty but now shattered Soviet Union no longer props up its Marxist-Leninist proxy states.

Viewed in this context, U.S. State Department and Pentagon policy developed and sharpened in the early 1960s hardly seems relevant in the 21st Century, and Cuba—of all places—hardly seems even a tiny fraction of the tsunami-like threats we now apparently face every day in foreign policy: the Taliban, ISIS, al Qaeda, militants in the Ukraine, a belligerent Russia, a nuclear Iran, a fragmenting Iraq, drug and human trafficking wars along the U.S. border with Mexico, rogue terror threats around the globe, intractable violence between Israel and Hamas, and a North Korea apparently willing to engage in cyber war against its perceived enemies.

So why continue to play out the same script written in 1960?

Obama’s recent decision, worked out through carefully-guarded back channels, to normalize relations with Cuba, came at a moment of minimum risk for a president looking at only two more years in office, and facing a no doubt challenging legislative agenda when Republicans take control of the House and Senate in January. The GOP has now solidified its numerical advantage to an all-time historical high-water mark. And the President’s low approval ratings mean that—paradoxically—he is able to engage in otherwise risk-heavy executive actions with little chance of political blowback, for himself or his party.

Furthermore, the President’s move is seen by some Democratic strategists as a win-win for the party’s long term: younger Latinos, and especially younger American’s with Cuban heritage, have little emotional investment in the politics of previous generations, and see instead the kind of normalization that will reunite families, open travel, foster unfiltered interaction through the web and social media, and enable Cuban society to enter the new century. When aligned with Obama’s thinking on immigration, pathways to citizenship and even amnesty, the normalization with Cuba makes sense politically.

But this is also a moment of maximum opportunity for Republicans. Not since the Republican Revolution of 1994 has the Grand Old Party enjoyed such a massive turnaround. The GOP was on the verge of being declared moribund, or dead, or mildly irrelevant—thanks in part to its own self-immolation, and in part to a generationally-driven demographic shift which seemed to be robbing all wind from once-reliable Republican sails.

That’s why it’s not coincidental that Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio—Floridians both—quickly weighed-in on the topic of the Obama administration’s unilateral moves to open the doors to Cuba. Bush and Rubio are both frequently mentioned when any political analyst or savant starts naming names on their bullet-point lists of potential candidates in 2016. When it comes to Democrats, there has been only Hillary Clinton for more than two years. Almost everyone, Republican and Democrat, expects her to run. And until as recently as early November, her name seemed unassailable—a sort of political Mount Everest for whom someone in the GOP would have to conquer come fall 2016. But the Clinton franchise—almost as much as the Democratic Party itself—took some heavy hits in the midterm elections. A dozen or more of the candidates she openly backed lost to Republican challengers (we say challengers even though a few of the GOP candidates were incumbents, but the media narrative that the Dems would pull of some miracles turned out to be backwards).

So for Barack Obama, the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba was good timing: low risk for himself, low risk for the party, high opportunity for younger Latinos to incorporate this latest move as yet another sign that their natural political brand allegiance should be with the Democrats, not the GOP.

But the opportunity was also ripe for Jeb Bush to have a word or two about Cuba. The younger brother of George W. Bush, and the son of George Herbert Walker Bush, may be only weeks away from deciding that it his time to join the family business, i.e., run for President.

The talk of Jeb has been everywhere (including on this very website, where we predicted he would run two years ago). To describe the Republican field as crowded is now an understatement—like calling business “brisk” at the Apple store on the day of a new phone’s release. Though not a single potential candidate has made official his or her candidacy for the GOP nomination in 2016, the presumed list includes Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, Sam Brownback, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, and of course both Bush and Rubio. After the GOP sweep in the midterms, interest in 2016 grew even larger. The list now also includes throwbacks to previous elections: Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Michelle Bachmann, and even (say it ain’t so) Mitt Romney, a man who in a few recent interviews would not rule out the possibility of another run.

But for Bush to be taken seriously by some segments of the Republican right, he must now begin to weigh-in on all things sensitive along that conservative pulse. The White House deal with Cuba has given him that opportunity.

John Ellis Bush, aka Jeb, was a popular governor in the Sunshine State. In Florida, where politics is a contact sport akin to rollerball or heavyweight boxing—sometimes a little of both—moderation and pragmatism are governing virtues. He learned that in a bruising, nasty first run for governor in 1994, when he lost to incumbent Lawton Chiles, a genial and likeable Democrat who threw everything in (and under) the kitchen sink at Bush. Bush’s attempts that year to run as a conservative’s conservative occasionally misfired, giving the Chiles campaign a chance to drive a deep wedge between Bush and those who were previusly inclined toward his record of conciliation and management competence. Bush lost to Chiles in a squeaker. But Bush but won big in 1998 in his race against Buddy McKay, then lieutenant governor. Though Florida was heavily Republican even at that time, Bush won the governorship by reaching out, and across traditional party lines.

Bush quickly turned that penchant for pragmatism into a winning legislative formula in a state which too often requires a Herculean effort to find agreement on anything. And Bush—a well-regarded manager-style governor—remained popular in office precisely because of his ability to be flexible when it was the right thing to do.

But this created a problem for some in the GOP. Long held in a place of guarded suspicion by some true-blue conservatives, Bush became too easily painted as moderate—too moderate—on some of the most hot-button issues of the aught years. Despite his success as governor (he won re-election to the governor’s mansion in a landslide in 2002, becoming the first Republican to serve two terms in the Sunshine State), the newer breed of conservative by then taking over the GOP took a skeptical view of the brother to George W.

Bush has been trudging and idealistic in his quest to remain a centrist on some key issues, especially those which play most personally against his own story. His dedication to economic growth and budget priorities share the limelight with his more passionate interests in education and immigration, and for some on the right, his nuanced, carefully-worded positions on those last two items put him in a spot somewhat outside of their comfort zone. His prime-time speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa was seen by some as a lost opportunity to aggressively court the insurrectionist wing of the party; he talked almost exclusively about educational opportunity, a missive perhaps better-received by reporters and some Democrats than by those in the hall.

This is why Bush’s comments on Wednesday were not only important in the context of the newly ignited Cuba debate, but also an early indicator of his intention to be taken seriously by some conservatives as someone who will not leave their treasured issues on the table. Bush took issue with the President’s sweeping realignment toward Cuba. Though he welcomed the return of American citizen Alan Gross, held for years in a Cuban jail, Bush blasted Obama for his decision to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations in one sweeping move.

“Cuba is a dictatorship with a disastrous human rights record,” Bush said in a press statement, “and now President Obama has rewarded those dictators. The benefactors of President Obama’s ill-advised move will be the heinous Castro Brothers, who have oppressed the Cuban people for decades.”

Strong words from the conciliatory Bush who surely sees the demographic advantage of playing to the desires and aspirations of younger Cuban-Americans, and the children and grandchildren of those who fled Cuba in previous decades. Instead, Bush found the sweet spot with some of the same conservatives who have worried and fretted mightily about Castro’s isolated dictatorship for years. For many conservatives of a certain generation, Cuba—almost as much as the pariah state North Korea—is a dark reminder of the horrors of a rigid Marxist-Leninist social model. Cuba has no freedom of religion, no freedom of press, no freedom of speech or assembly, no right to due process. Wages are paid to the state, with a tiny percentage then paid back from the government to the worker. Cuban jails are filled with the political opponents of Fidel Castro and Raoul Castro.

Rubio, too, was quick to pounce on Obama’s decision. And Rubio, who is Cuban-American, may take it one step further, using his position in the United States Senate to attempt a blockage of the President’s action.

Rubio held a press conference on Wednesday in which he blasted the President for taking unilateral action toward Cuba. Like Bush, Rubio praised the release of Gross, who was freed in exchange for three Cubans who had been held in the U.S and charged with spying. But Rubio vowed to fight Obama on the larger policy changes toward Cuba.

“This entire policy shift announced today is based on an illusion, and based on a lie” Rubio told reporters during a press conference in a Capitol briefing room. “The White House has conceded everything, and gained little.”

Rubio added “I’m committed to doing everything I can to unravel as many of these changes as possible.”

President Obama, who has said repeatedly in recent months that he intends to act on his own using executive authority to make significant policy changes—on immigration, for example—took the dramatic action toward Cuba after many months of secret and delicate negotiations with Havana. Among the most substantial changes will be the lifting of nearly 50 years of trade embargo with Cuba, a policy which has greatly limited the island nation’s ability to move forward with technological changes, telecommunications, social media and internet access, and even product innovations. Travel restrictions will also be lifted, making it possible for people to move freely from Cuba to the United States, and enabling Cuba to become the recipient of American tourist dollars.

But not everyone agrees that these bullet point advantages outweigh the problems of normalizing relations with a corrupt, communist state. Rubio has made it clear that he will use all his political strength to fight the President’s policy reversal.

Next year, in his role as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—and with the GOP firmly in control of the Senate—Rubio will have considerable sway over the whether the President’s new policy toward Cuba becomes the law. And for now, Rubio has the backing of several other top Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner and senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. A few younger GOP members in Congress support Obama, which again shows the generational disconnect on the issue of Cuba.

For both Rubio and Bush, the timing of Obama’s policy shift gives each a chance to flex their muscle among conservatives. To most political observers, Rubio’s outrage is no surprise. For Bush, however, the opportunity to weigh-in as a conservative’s conservative—Reaganesque and hawkish on communist dictatorships—indicates his seriousness when it comes to the burning question of his presidential aspirations for 2016.

And since some Republican strategists—those looking ahead to the Electoral map for 2016—think that the President may have overstepped his tactical safe zone on Cuba by putting Florida’s always-important 29 electoral votes in play. Bush has every reason to run headlong toward an issue which will surely help him draw sharp differences between his position and that of, say, Hillary Clinton. Though Clinton has not weighed-in fully on the President’s recent initiative toward Cuba, she has long taken a carefully-worded position that relations between the two adversaries should be normalized.

Bush can immediately draw distinctions between himself and the presumed Democratic front-runner.

“I don’t think we should be negotiating with a repressive regime to make changes in our relationship,” Bush said.

Plenty of conservatives make the point that Cuba is solely responsible for its own isolation and punishment, much in the same way that North Korea remains in a self-imposed state of global exile. Both countries suffer under the weight of harsh economic sanctions, but both countries have horrific track records when it comes to even the most basic human rights.

Still, many of the most compelling arguments in favor of keeping the sanctions and embargoes intact fall far short with younger voters. Democratic strategists are hopeful that Obama’s new tack will draw in support from those who represent the generation of social media, instant communication, and web connectivity. Some younger people of Cuban heritage suggest that Cuba may have its own “spring,” much in the same way that social media has transformed some Arab countries and much of Eastern Europe.

In the meantime, President Obama—acting perhaps more robustly than what some might expect from a lame duck president—is not the only one calculating the long-term impact of the policy shift toward Cuba. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio must make almost the exact same calculations, only in their case they seek to shape the math to their advantage in 2016.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Jeb Bush: Business, Politics, or Both; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 18, 2014.

Bush Versus Clinton: Déjà vu, All Over Again; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; April 11, 2014.