Florida's U.S. Senators Centrist No More

By: Jeff Henderson | Posted: February 18, 2013 3:55 AM
Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio

U.S. Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio

Florida’s two U.S. senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio, enjoyed the national limelight this week as they continue to take very different paths in office.

Rubio is starting to emerge as one of the leading Republican presidential hopefuls in 2016. Nelson, meanwhile, is poised to become an even stronger ally to President Barack Obama.

Never mind his curious sip-of-water pause, Rubio is winning accolades from conservatives for his GOP response to Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night. The junior senator from Florida responded to pundits and comedians focused on his water swig with humor, sending pictures of a water bottle over social media and offering bottles of water to donors supporting his PAC.

Rubio seems to have escaped State of the Union harm. Humor -- especially the self-deprecating kind -- is effective damage control in politics. Several politicians in recent years didn't make the escape.

Those who didn't, bungling their chances to respond to the president, include Bob Dole in 1996 and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana in 2009. Jindal is also being mentioned as a possible Republican presidential candidate. While the 2016 primaries are years away, some political observers, including Washington Post’s “The Fix” team and noted pundit Christian Heinze, have Rubio starting out as the favorite for the Republican presidential nomination.

Rubio's presidential bid is no secret and it's already winning him national headlines. He’s also in the national spotlight as he becomes the Republicans' point man on immigration reform. With other Republicans putting out feelers of their own for 2016, Rubio is trying to keep conservatives behind him even as he moves to the center on immigration.

In his speech on Tuesday night, Rubio slammed Obama on a range of issues including the economy.

“Presidents in both parties – from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan – have known that our free-enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity,” Rubio said. “But President Obama? He believes it’s the cause of our problems. That the economic downturn happened because our government didn’t tax enough, spend enough and control enough.

"And, therefore, as you heard tonight, his solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more. This idea – that our problems were caused by a government that was too small – it’s just not true. In fact, a major cause of our recent downturn was a housing crisis created by reckless government policies.”

Rubio also attacked Obama for supporting large government, on foreign policy, education and gun control. With the shadow of Mitt Romney’s presidential loss over the GOP, Rubio played up his humble roots and insisted the Republicans were not just the party of the wealthy.

Meanwhile, the senior senator from Florida carried water for the White House earlier in the day. During a contentious meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee as it deliberated forwarding the nomination of former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., to be Defense secretary, Nelson mixed it up with tea party favorite U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

When Cruz said Hagel had financial links to “radical and extreme groups” and demanded to know if the former senator had any ties to Iran, Nelson went after the Texas Republican.

"I want to put on the record that this senator feels like Senator Cruz has gone over the line," Nelson said. "He basically has impugned the patriotism of the nominee and your conclusions, which you are entitled to come to, in essence about him being cozy with Iran.

"You have also stated your opinion that you don't think he's been truthful with this committee, and those are two fairly strong statements," Nelson added. "Clearly in the sharpness of difference of opinion -- to question in essence whether somebody is a fellow traveler with another country, I think is taking it too far."

It was a rare moment for Nelson, who has been a political player in Florida for more than 40 years based, in part, on his reputation as a congenial moderate. With Democrats holding no Cabinet office, Nelson is the only member of his party to hold a statewide office.

After the 2012 elections, Nelson had the luxury of moving to the left and playing up his ties with Obama who did carry Florida in his two successful presidential bids. Despite being one of the chief targets for Republicans, Nelson was one of the biggest winners on Election Day, utterly crushing GOP hopeful Connie Mack at the polls. Secure in his office until 2018, when he will be 76 years old -- an age at which many senators retire, including Tom Harkin and Jay Rockefeller who announced in recent weeks they would not seek re-election in 2014 -- Nelson is free to back Obama as much as he likes.

Florida has a tradition of two centrist senators reaching across party lines to work together -- Bob Graham and Connie Mack, Nelson and Mel Martinez. With Rubio keeping an eye on 2016 and Nelson having six more years after his big victory in November, Florida’s senators are headed in opposite directions, one going right and the other going left.

Tallahassee political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis piece exclusively for Sunshine State News. 

Comments (3)

Franklin Thompson
7:14AM FEB 20TH 2013
Bill Nelson's legacy is that of a Florida Insurance Commissioner who created underfunded insurance companies called 'pups' that were one average size hurricane away from bankruptcy.

Check his net worth prior to going to Washington against what it is now. That is a good measuring stick for this crook.
1:11PM FEB 18TH 2013
Who are you kidding about Rubio . . . certainly not all Republicans . . . as it was put last week:

"A guy that’s great looking, a guy that’s articulate, a guy that could put together a lot of different groups that could help you win the presidency, and a guy who’s not ready to be POTUS" - Joe Scarborough

Who are you kidding about your snipping at Sen. Nelson over his right on comments over out of line Joe McCarthy-like demonizing Hagel statements by Ted Cruz . . . it appears to be an inconvenient truth that your 2008 Presidential candidate also had this to say about the same Ted Cruz comments:

"I just want to make it clear, Senator Hagel is an honorable man. He has served his country. And no one on this committee should at any time impugn his character or his integrity" - John McCain

This, by a Senator who will be 77 "this" year (i.e. 6 years older than Nelson) . . . so, where was your belittling suggestion he retire during his 2010 campaign at age 74 . . . . thought not . . .

Perhaps this should serve as a warning about/to Rubio . . . . in their senatorial races, Nelson crushed his Republican opponent . . . . Rubio failed to receive 50% of the statewide vote in his . . . . and it's clear that it's not Nelson that is going radical . . . it is the Tea Party dominated Republican Party that is tearing apart its own party and labeling as RINO anyone who doesn't buy into their far right views and shilly thoughts, like a Agenda 21 conspiracy to allow the UN to take over the sovereignty of the U.S. through planning, zoning and environmental protection and regulation . . . . . . and, it seems, 6,000 year-old age of the earth Rubio theories (i.e. he supported it before it denied it, while still believing it could be true) . . .

Pathetic . . . .
Rafael Ciordia
10:13AM FEB 18TH 2013
Of course Senator Rubio received conservative accolades. He choked out the same old Romney/GOP talking points as always - this time bilingually. His speech en español was far better than his English version - give him that. But it was divorced from the actual SOTU given that evening. The President did not give plans to expand government, tax more and spend more. Mr. Rubio meanwhile has his home on the market even as he extols the virtues of being an unchanged man who still values living in his middle class neighborhood. He plans a move to Washington DC. The Republican primaries process will sure to be a grind! Croquetas anyone?

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