This summer, in an act of literary masochism, I read not one but two books about Marco Rubio. I came away from his memoir, An American Son, and Manuel Roig-Franzia’s excellent biographyThe Rise of Marco Rubio, with the queasy feeling many Republicans must have had when they began reading Obama books in 2007 or 2008: this isn’t the guy you want to see on the other side of the line.

It’s not that Rubio is as smart and perceptive as Obama. Not even close. But he’s likable and authentic. I expected American Son to be a linear narrative about a child of immigrants who through talent and dedication validates his parents’ sacrifice and realizes the American Dream. But it’s an edgier, more self-critical tale of a somewhat immature and egocentric child of immigrants who torments his parents and alienates the woman he loves until football, Catholicism, and politics give him the direction he needs. It’s also the story of a young man who’s far more interested in politics than ideology. Reading Roig-Franzia, and Rubio himself, you get the impression that Marco Rubio has only one long-standing ideological conviction: hatred of Fidel Castro. What he fell in love with on the streets of Miami’s raucous Cuban ghetto was the political game. The best analogy might be John F. Kennedy, who also learned the art of politics in a parochial ethnic community but through personal skill and generational change was able to transcend it.

As Roig-Franzia makes clear, Rubio’s early views on immigration were shaped more by immigrant and ethnic kinship than any right-wing slogan about securing borders and enforcing the law. In the Florida legislature, Rubio cosponsored legislation to give migrant farmworkers more rights and supported in-state tuition for illegal immigrants’ kids. He also fancied himself a pragmatic dealmaker, working as speaker of the Florida House to pass a statewide cap-and-trade framework for combatting climate change on the grounds that Washington was likely to mandate it and the Sunshine State might as well be ready.

In 2010, Rubio was savvy enough to see an opening with the nascent Tea Party after Florida’s moderate Republican governor, Charlie Crist, made the mistake of hugging Barack Obama. And Rubio skillfully grafted the Tea Party’s anti-government message onto his own hatred of Castro with lines like: “My parents lost their country to a government. I’m not going to lose mine.” But everything about his political career in Florida helps explain why, on entering the U.S. Senate, he opted to quarantine himself in a back room with John McCain and Chuck Schumer and craft a bill that gives immigrants a path to citizenship.

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