What's worse for your political ambitions, being labeled a wimp by Newsweek or a savior by Time? Marco Rubio, the freshman senator from Florida, has been stuck with the savior label and it has several disadvantages. It makes allies suspicious, irritates your rivals, and perhaps worst of all: When you're a savior, people expect you to perform miracles.
After Rubio delivered the Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union Address, commentators said he had simply mouthed standard GOP talking points. How was he going to expand the Republican electorate by doing that? A particularly damning charge was that he sounded too much like Mitt Romney. As Jonathan Martin pointed out, Rubio's speech--thick with references to his humble origins and common touch--was designed to send the signal that he was the polar opposite of Mitt Romney.
The story of Rubio, his ambitions, and how they play out is about more than just the fortunes of one charismatic Republican. Rubio is one of the architects of the Republican future. Like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Rep. Paul Ryan, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, his ambitions are linked to his party in a way that is different than figures with greater power like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. Every day Rubio is taking soundings about what the GOP will allow and what the larger electorate will allow. The risks he takes and the reactions they provoke from his fellow-travelers will tell us something about where the party is headed.
Still, the criticism of Rubio's State of the Union response asks too much too soon. The GOP is not ready to announce a sweeping new direction, (it may never be ready) and Rubio isn't in a position to launch a thorough rebranding right now anyway. Even if he was, 10 minutes after the State of the Union would be the wrong time to do it. Still, if Rubio is going to add new energy to the GOP, he'll have to find a venue where he can make a much more compelling case for the party's signature principle: the promise and glory of smaller government.
For many conservatives, the criticism of Rubio's message on Tuesday night is meaningless. The media apply labels in part to then remove them. So build up Rubio and then take him down. It's meaningless for another reason too: They don't think the party needs much tinkering. So when Rubio reads from the traditional GOP script it sounds good to them.