Ever since Marco Rubio's stirring third-place finish in the Iowa caucus, the Florida senator has become the talk of the political world — the electable hope of the GOP establishment.
As the political world's fount of conventional wisdom, David Gergen, argued yesterday, "Marco Rubio's surprisingly strong showing will encourage GOP elites to believe they, too, can secure the nomination for a more moderate candidate."
That Rubio appears more electable is perhaps not surprising when you consider that we're talking about Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. But that doesn't mean Rubio is actually electable — and it certainly doesn't mean he's a moderate.
Sure he's young, dynamic, and good-looking, and he's has crafted a political image that appears to be less conservative and more tolerant than other candidates. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, Rubio is the most conservative candidate in the Republican field.
He's absolutist on gun rights. While all the Republicans oppose same-sex marriage, Rubio has spoken of appointing Supreme Court justices who would roll back the right to same sex marriage, and of reversing President Obama's executive orders preventing discrimination against the LGBT community.
He believes climate change is happening but doesn't think it's being caused by humans, and has said he opposes most environmental laws and regulations because they will "destroy our economy." On immigration, he has famously reversed his earlier support for reform and now opposes a direct path to citizenship. At least one can say in his favor that he opposes mass deportation and has left the door open on citizenship, but his views on immigration are hardly moderate.
This is pretty standard fare for a Republican aspirant, but that's telling in itself. The notion that he is the GOP field's moderate should rest on the idea that he's slightly to the left of Trump and Cruz. I can find almost no issues where that's the case.
In fact, on a host of policy matters, he's gone far beyond his opponents.
Regarding abortion, Rubio is not just antiabortion, but also opposes exceptions in the case of rape and incest. That's a more radical position than any Republican nominee in recent memory — and more radical than Trump, who supports exceptions for rape, incest, and life of the mother.
His tax-cut plan is perhaps the most regressive of any GOP candidate and is actually three times larger than Jeb Bush's highly regressive tax plan. According to an analysis by the liberal think tank Citizens for Tax Justice, Rubio "would add $11.8 trillion to the national debt over a decade" and more than a third of his tax cuts would go to the top 1 percent.
Amazingly, in a field that includes Ted "carpet bomb" Cruz and Donald "bomb . . . ISIS" Trump, Rubio is the most hawkish of the bunch. In a field of candidates who constantly try to outdo each other in using the most alarmist language, Rubio leads the pack. He has described ISIS as "the most dangerous jihadist group in the history of mankind," and said it wants "to trigger an apocalyptic Armageddon showdown." He describes their goals as apocalyptic — a word he also applies to Iran. In the last debate, he called for sending terrorists arrested in the United States to Guantanamo, which would likely violate the Constitution. He's attacked Cruz and others for opposing NSA domestic surveillance; is pledging to increase the defense budget because he claims the US military has been hollowed out under Obama (this isn't true); and is decidedly further to the right than Trump, who has criticized the Iraq War and talked about pulling back on America's overseas commitments.
Of course, Rubio's appeal is not so much about his policy ideas, but rather his presentation — and the sense, which Rubio has long cultivated, that he is the GOP's young and optimistic candidate. But here as well, the disconnect is amazingly wide. The candidate who complained in his Iowa victory speech that his critics say "because we offer too much optimism in a time of anger, we had no chance" is the same candidate who regularly accuses the president of purposely undermining, attacking, and even ignoring the Constitution. He also accuses Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton of being a criminal. In a field of partisan slashers, Rubio is among the harshest, and yes, angriest.
If you put all this together, these are not the positions of a moderate politician in America — or one who can easily bring Hispanics, women voters, or Democrats into a GOP coalition. I don't doubt that Rubio is a better general-election candidate than Trump or Cruz, but the notion that he is the GOP savior this year seems more fiction than fact.
Michael A. Cohen's column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.