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Senator Marco Rubio is back in the news thanks to his decision to seek reelection for his Florida senate seat. From the beginning of this election cycle, I was ambivalent toward him as a presidential prospect and the ambivalence remains to this day. Simply put, Rubio’s talents qualify him well for some parts of the presidency, but poorly for others. From the start, I’ve felt that he would make the perfect head of state. An eloquent public speaker, clear eyed about America’s role in the world and with the bi-partisan instincts needed to function as a truly national figure, the Florida senator would be uniquely well suited as the face of the American Republic. And as much as conservatives shun this kind of thinking, Rubio’s ethnicity and family history would add a certain symbolic value.
Symbolism, however, is the key and therein lies the problem. Due to the Founders’ inability to predict the rise of the imperial presidency, we are left with a unitary executive that combines the functions of a head of state and head of government. To the former office, Rubio would excel; to the latter, his thin resume and proclivity to “work across the aisle” — as well as his somewhat shaky conservatism on domestic issues — would be far less well-suited. Our country is greatly polarized and precious few of our problems will be solved without a nasty partisan fight, the kind that would pose a major obstacle to any would-be unifying figure attempting to represent America abroad with a united voice. For the job of head of government, the present moment requires not just a true conservative, but also a leader who does not mind being hated, perhaps even one capable of reveling in his own unpopularity. A certain Texas senator — ironically, of similar ethnic heritage — comes to mind.
Given that the current situation is nearly impossible to contemplate, let’s turn to a hypothetical. Suppose that the modern presidency were not the noxious combination of chief executive and deified celebrity that we see today. Suppose further that it were possible to separate the necessary task of symbolic leadership from the even more necessary task of, you know, actual leadership. Whom would you support for president, if we still had a choice? More importantly, whom would you support for prime minister?