POLITICS
12/29/2012 11:33 am ET Updated Dec 30, 2012

As GOP Searches For Story To Tell, Marco Rubio Is Hard At Work Polishing His Own

WASHINGTON -– Let us count the ways that Sen. Marco Rubio is already better positioned to be a competitive presidential candidate in 2016 than Mitt Romney ever was.

Rubio (R-Fla.) is younger. He's Latino. He gives a good speech. But less remarked upon: Rubio understands the importance of talking about himself.

In other words, Rubio, 41, gets narrative.

For much of the last year, the Republican Party apparently did not. And the GOP's self-examination in the wake of Romney's loss has prompted many to say that the party needs to convey a more compelling, inspiring vision to American voters.

"The number one rule of competitive politics [is that] your story has to be rooted in lives of people. Having a narrative is really important," said former president Bill Clinton.

Narrative has become an overused cliché in everyday political parlance, but as a concept it is as crucial as ever for any national politician. President Barack Obama paved his path to victory in 2008 by telling his own story in a 1995 memoir. And Obama's longtime trusted adviser David Axelrod centered the 2008 campaign message firmly around the candidate's biography.

"Barack is the personification of his own message," Axelrod said in 2007. "He is his own vision."

Marshall Ganz, a veteran labor organizer and senior lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government whose ideas about narrative have influenced some of Obama's top campaign operatives, has explained the importance of what he called a "leadership story."

"Some people say, 'I don’t want to talk about myself,' but if you don’t interpret to others your calling and your reason for doing what you’re doing, do you think it will just stay uninterpreted? No. Other people will interpret it for you," Ganz wrote in 2009. "You don’t have any choice if you want to be a leader. You have to claim authorship of your story and learn to tell it to others so they can understand the values that move you to act, because it might move them to act as well."

Romney, the failed 2012 Republican nominee, was often faulted for not wanting to talk about ways he had helped other people. But Romney seemed uncomfortable talking about himself in any context. And his campaign consultants discouraged him from talking at length about his Mormon faith, a crucial part of Romney's biography and of his inner life.

Ganz, in an interview, said candidates who come from privilege often avoid self-examination. Romney grew up in a wealthy family, as did Al Gore and John Kerry, the Democratic candidates who fell short of the White House in 2000 and 2004 and who both were hindered by stiff and inaccessible personalities.

"There's a Yiddish riddle: 'Who discovered water? I don't know, but it wasn't a fish,'" Ganz told The Huffington Post. "We're fish in the water of our own stories unless there's some motivation, or some need that provokes us articulating them. And if you're living a life of privilege, it could be that there's just less need. 'I don't need to do the work of interpreting who I am.'"

Rubio doesn't have that challenge. He grew up the son of working-class Cuban immigrants who struggled at times to provide for him and his siblings. And Rubio has made sure to mention that in recent public appearances.

"My mother lived in a home with dirt floors in rural Cuba, raised by a disabled father who struggled to bring food home every night," Rubio said at a speech in early December headlining the annual dinner in honor of former Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.).

The low-income and working-class Americans that Rubio is seeking to win over were famously alienated by Romney's 47 percent remarks. But conservative columnist Ramesh Ponnoru argued after the election that the entire meta-narrative that the GOP was telling throughout the election season did little to win these voters.

"The Republican story about how societies prosper -- not just the Romney story -- dwelt on the heroic entrepreneur stifled by taxes and regulations: an important story with which most people do not identify," Ponnoru wrote. "The ordinary person does not see himself as a great innovator. He, or she, is trying to make a living and support or maybe start a family.

"A conservative reform of our health care system and tax code, among other institutions, might help with these goals," Ponnoru continued. "About this person, however, Republicans have had little to say."

Avik Roy in Forbes sounded a similar note.

"Increasingly, swing voters are being hit with our health care problems," Roy wrote. "People who lose their jobs, or work part time, have to buy costly coverage on their own. Employers are increasingly dropping their health coverage -- a trend that was true before Obamacare, but that our new health care law will accelerate.

"If Republicans don’t wake up to these problems, and devote intellectual energy to solving them, they will become increasingly irrelevant to the voters who decide elections."

Rubio is trying to change this. It will, obviously, have to be about more than biography for Rubio or any other candidate in 2016. But a candidate's personal story, and the brand it creates, has become in many ways the key with which to open a door and gain a hearing with voters on these issues. Once you're through the door, they'll listen to your ideas. But not before that.

"In politics appearances are as important as reality," Rubio himself said in his book.

With that in mind, Rubio's plans for the immediate future are heavy on nontraditional media appearances that will help introduce him to the nation, rather than bog him down on Capitol Hill in partisan fights.

"He's willing to go into spaces that other people aren't," said Rubio political adviser Albert Martinez, mentioning the senator's two appearances on "The Daily Show."

Rubio has said little about the fiscal cliff fight. His media shop sent nothing on the issue through all of December. In contrast, his Senate office has issued statements on Human Rights Day and World AIDS Day. He's also taken a hard line supporting Israel, has harped on the Obama administration's handling of the terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, and has made economic growth and reducing the national debt his points of emphasis in the fiscal cliff debate.

Rubio also has followed the Obama template by publishing his own memoir. An American Son came out in June, and while it is not as angst-ridden or soul-searching as Obama's Dreams From My Father, Rubio displays honesty and authenticity that sets his story apart from many other books by presidential hopefuls, who usually just blather about policy positions and the greatness of America.

Rubio's book takes the reader through his personal story -– from childhood to adulthood -– and begins with a chapter about his mother's father titled "Storyteller." Rubio also admits frequent regrets over being absent from his wife and four children, and gives his own explanations of matters that eventually exploded into ethics probes of his time as House speaker in the Florida legislature.

Having laid the groundwork to define his own narrative, Rubio is now trying to connect his biography to a broader message of how conservatism is the governing ideology that will help poor and middle-class Americans like his own parents.

"We have not done a good enough job of communicating to people what conservatism is," Rubio told GQ.

"Big government helps the people who have made it. It doesn't help the people who are trying to make it -- it crushes the people who are trying to make it," Rubio said. "So, our challenge is, if we want free enterprise, limited government, and conservatism to be a viable and successful political movement in America, we've got to make that connection for people."

Rubio has a group of experienced political advisers, all loyalists who have been with him for several years. Todd Harris, Heath Thompson, Malorie Miller and Martinez are outside consultants, while Bush administration veteran Cesar Conda, southern operative Terry Sullivan and communications director Alex Burgos run his Senate office. Veteran spokesman Alex Conant, who has an excellent rapport with the press, is at the senator's side most of the time.

But Martinez told HuffPost that as Rubio goes forward, the candidate will be the ultimate keeper of the flame regarding his story.

"He's the guy who is at the center of it all," Martinez said. "The strength of his narrative comes from who he is, where he's from, the neighborhood that he grew up in."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story identified Albert Martinez using the wrong name. We regret the error.

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