Sen. Marco Rubio isn’t waiting for a vice presidential offer to go after President Barack Obama: He’s been locked in a quiet battle with the White House for months, blocking key diplomatic appointments in hopes of getting his say on foreign policy.
The Rubio-Obama administration skirmish — sloppy, confusing and still largely unresolved — could presage an even bigger, sloppier and more confusing Rubio-Obama political battle this fall.
Administration officials say Rubio’s move is reckless, placing party politics above the nation’s vital economic and security interests.
Amazingly, it’s gone virtually unnoticed outside the Spanish-language media, despite touching on some of the most interesting themes of the 2012 campaign: the role of U.S. power in a post-Iraq world, the increasingly decisive role of the Hispanic vote in national politics and the searing political question of whether the talented Mr. Rubio is ready for the big time.
The scrap began when the Florida Republican, whose hawkish positions are rooted in his family’s history in Cuba, picked a fight with the Obama administration late last fall over its choice for ambassador to El Salvador, Mari Carmen Aponte, in hopes of getting the State Department to adopt a tougher line with Nicaragua and Cuba.
Under most scenarios, that time-honored gambit to prod presidents, used by ambitious senators ranging from Scoop Jackson to Jesse Helms, would have done more good than harm.
But in this case, it seems to have backfired. Rubio’s opposition to Aponte — a diplomat and Democratic staffer born in Puerto Rico — is now being portrayed by Democrats and some Spanish-language media as a broader attack on Puertorriqueños, a critical Latino voting bloc in Florida and other battleground states.
And after Rubio voted against Aponte twice on a pair of committee and procedural votes, he agreed to back her confirmation in mid-December under pressure from Hispanic groups, a move that struck senators on both sides of the aisle as a rookie stumble.
“He’s struck out twice. I mean, he says he’s for her now, but he [voted] against her twice,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told POLITICO.
“In Nevada, this woman [Aponte] is seen by the Puerto Rican community, the Hispanic community, as really somebody who is an up-and-rising star. … I just think it’s a mistake for someone who is supposedly representing Hispanic issues to do what [Rubio] has done,” added Reid, who said Rubio hasn’t delivered the votes on Aponte that he promised.
Alex Conant, Rubio’s spokesman, suggests such criticism of his boss is part of a coordinated Democratic effort to “knock Marco down a peg.” He said that effort has included conference calls, ads and quotes lambasting many of Rubio’s policies, such as his opposition to the administration’s mandate that Catholic hospitals and universities provide birth control.
Conant said Rubio dropped his objection to Aponte in exchange for a new administration statement, delivered in January, asserting that the Sandinista government in Nicaragua may have rigged recent national elections.
As the Senate clock ticked toward the looming Christmas recess, Rubio began trying to persuade seven or eight other Senate Republicans to change their votes, too, to break a filibuster led by his own leadership.
But by the last day of the 2011 session, the votes simply weren’t there — and Rubio’s leadership hadn’t even waived procedural rules against fast-tracking the confirmation. Democrats say Rubio never really had his people lined up; Rubio says Reid dropped the ball.
Aponte’s interim appointment expired and the embassy in San Salvador has been leaderless ever since. Rubio feels so burned by the encounter that he’s leaving the lobbying to Reid and the White House.
Democrats involved in the negotiations claim that Rubio — who is still blocking the confirmation of Roberta Jacobson, acting assistant secretary of state for the western hemisphere — got caught grandstanding. Other Democrats say he was paying back a favor to Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), an early Rubio ally who vehemently opposes Aponte, in part because she wrote an op-ed supporting gay, lesbian and transgender rights.
“I never had any objection to Mari Carmen,” Rubio wrote. “I was always about the administration’s lack of interest in defending democracy in Nicaragua. When we made progress on that, I kept my word and lined up the votes for her. But they didn’t keep their word. Everything is about politics with this White House. They decided to sacrifice her nomination in order to try to score political points.”
But White House officials counter that the real damage is occurring right now, and the absence of Aponte is already hampering efforts to create a coherent hemispheric policy at a time when the administration is working on agreements ranging from trade pacts to efforts aimed at curtailing the power of Salvadoran gangs in the U.S.
“Through sustained, high-level engagement, the administration has restored U.S. standing and leadership in the Americas,” said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor.
“United States national security efforts, particularly as we head into the Summit of the Americas in April, would be strengthened by the Senate acting to confirm all pending Western Hemisphere-related nominees. To deny high-level nominations runs counter to U.S. national interests and alienates the region,” Vietor added.
The funny thing is that for all the public bombast, both sides were actually developing a reasonable working relationship before the confirmation blew up, according to people close to the talks.
Rubio and his staff were corresponding, amicably enough, with senior State Department official Wendy Sherman and Obama aide Cecilia Muñoz, who was then head of the administration’s intergovernmental affairs unit and is now director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.
On Dec. 17, even after the effort stalled, Aponte sent Rubio a surprisingly affectionate — or diplomatic — email.
“Thank you very much for all of your support during my confirmation process,” she wrote, according to a copy provided to POLITICO. “Although the outcome is not what all of us had hoped for — friendships were made and a lot of strength was gathered from the effort. I will forever be grateful for your hard work.”
It was signed, “Mari Carmen.”
Rubio claims to have locked up the GOP votes he needed in mid-December, only to have Reid inexplicably pull the confirmation off the floor.
One problem is that a likely “yes” vote, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), hasn’t been able to visit the Capitol since suffering a stroke last month.
Senate Democratic aides counter that Rubio simply bungled the whole thing — and Reid questions Rubio’s whip count.
“Of course, his votes didn’t add up to seven,” the majority leader said in an interview. “I need seven and I’m [still] waiting to find out who they are.”
White House officials deny any political motivation in their dealings with Rubio. But senior Democratic party officials freely express admiration for Rubio’s oratorical and political skills (“He’s brilliant … best since Barack,” said one), and admit they are trawling around for attack lines against him.
Many Democrats in Obama’s orbit see Rubio as less of a lock for the second slot if Mitt Romney secures the nomination. They’re spending almost as much of their time gaming for the possibility that Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell or Ohio Sen. Rob Portman could get the nod.
But even if the issue remains a local Florida flap and Rubio simply stays a powerful surrogate for the GOP nominee, it’s a big enough deal, considering that the state could be decided by a few thousand — or hundred — votes either way.
Javier Cuebas, a community activist from Orlando — part of Florida’s I-4 corridor, home to most of the state’s estimated 850,000 Puerto Ricans — said the Aponte battle has weakened Rubio’s standing among non-Cuban Latinos who might have been open to his candidacy, despite his support of strict immigration laws.
“This is not the first time Sen. Rubio has expressed concerns about a Puerto Rican nominee — when he was a candidate, he expressed similar concerns about Judge [Sonia] Sotomayor,” Cuebas said of the first Latina justice on the Supreme Court. “People don’t forget these things. … And remember, Cubans only make up about one-third of the Hispanic population in Florida.”
Still, if Rubio earns the second spot on the ticket, his national appeal would be to conservative voters generally. The best Republicans can probably hope for, said one operative who worked for a Republican presidential hopeful this year, is that Rubio would cut into Obama’s dominance with Spanish-speaking voters.
During his Senate bid, Rubio won only about 42 percent of the Latino vote, compared with 45 percent of white voters, exit polls showed.
“He’s a tea party magnet, so none of this really affects his marketablity,” the operative added.
The Obama-Rubio entanglement isn’t over: Rubio, Reid and White House officials would all be happy if a path to the 60 voters needed for her confirmation are found — even if Rubio is leaving the heavy lifting to Democrats.
If they succeed, there’s a good chance that the Rubio-Aponte backstory would be forgotten, according to Rafael Fantauzzi, president of the National Puerto Rican Coalition, which is starting to lobby GOP senators on Aponte’s behalf.
“Maybe some of the Republicans will want to vote yes just to get Rubio out of this situation,” Fantauzzi said with a chuckle. “The bottom line is we are very happy that he is on our side.”
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Aponte as a career diplomat, a term that implied she was a civil service employee.