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The Obama paradox: Why he is a role model to three Republican senators

Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz are all freshman senators in a hurry to be president – just as Barack Obama was eight years ago. Inexperience is no longer seen as an obstacle.

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    President Obama pauses while speaking in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, April 23, 2015.
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Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul all have a Barack Obama problem. All three Republicans are running for president as first-term senators – just as a young Senator Obama did eight years ago.

And the last thing America needs is another President Obama, Republicans are fond of saying. That argument may hold sway with some GOP voters, but there’s a problem with it. Mr. Obama won the presidency – twice. And it’s hard to argue with success.

In fact, the three freshmen may be furthering a whole new paradigm, begun by Obama, for presidential candidacies. No more “waiting one’s turn.” No more building up a decades-long résumé of votes, bills passed, and leadership positions, as Sens. Bob Dole (R), John McCain (R), and John Kerry (D) all did on the way to their presidential nominations – only to lose in the general election.

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“We may be in the early stages of a perverse system, where the less you have done, the better off you can do in presidential politics,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the first three Republicans to announce for president are freshman senators – a sign of their eagerness. And there is no denying that the sense of possibility and ambition that Senators Rubio, Paul, and Cruz have cherished was in no small way carved out by the man they are trying to replace.

“Barack Obama set the new standard,” Ken Khachigian, President Reagan’s chief speechwriter, tells the Arizona Republic. “In the past, senators probably would not think to do this. They look at what Obama did and say, ‘Why wait?’ ”

Like Obama in 2007, these new-ish senators running for president bring critical qualities to the stump: They aren’t yet seen as “captured” by Congress – a deeply unpopular institution. And they still have a fighting chance of avoiding “legi-speak.”

Who can forget then-Senator Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee, when he said, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it”? Republicans hung such flip-floppery around Kerry’s neck all the way to Election Day.

Major new forces are also at work to help the freshmen’s rise. The Citizens United ruling of 2010 opened the floodgates of unlimited cash to outside groups supporting candidates. Now, all it takes is a megadonor or two to pump millions into a candidate’s super political action committee (or four super PACs, in Cruz’s case) to allow a candidate to stay in the nomination race longer than he or she might otherwise be able. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum demonstrated this in 2012.

Moreover, changes in the media landscape – both the advent of social media and the proliferation of partisan media outlets – have leveled the playing field for ambitious politicians in a hurry. Suddenly, a clever newcomer who’s good on Fox News and active on Twitter doesn’t need to wait to be discovered by the old mainstream outlets.

All three freshmen have put their own twists on the Obama model. When Obama was elected to the US Senate in 2004, he was a singular figure – only the third African American senator elected since Reconstruction, and already a celebrity after his breakout keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. As a senator, he didn’t have to make a name for himself. And once in the Senate, he became cautious.  

“Mr. Obama took few bold stands and diverted little from the liberal orthodoxy he had embraced in the Illinois Senate,” two New York Times reporters concluded in a March 2008 article assessing Obama’s record as a US senator

In fact, perhaps Obama’s single most important policy pronouncement on the way to the 2008 Democratic nomination came well before he joined the US Senate: his early opposition to the Iraq War, back in 2002. Then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, his top opponent for the nomination, had voted to authorize the war.

While Rubio, Paul, and Cruz joined the Senate as minor tea party celebrities, they have since chosen not to quietly fit in. All three have taken bold positions on key issues.

For Rubio, the issue was immigration. He helped craft legislation for comprehensive immigration reform, then amid a conservative backlash, disavowed his own bill. He’s still working to smooth that over, as he courts conservatives for the nomination while remaining viable for the general.

For Paul, his libertarian views have given him a strong Senate profile. His biggest moment in the spotlight came in 2013, when he staged a rare 12-hour “talking filibuster” against the danger of drone strikes on US soil. But as a presidential candidate, Paul’s outspokenness on national security – namely, his noninterventionist tendencies – have taken him out of step with the GOP mainstream.

Cruz, too, established himself as a conservative show-horse soon after joining the Senate, leading the charge toward the partial government shutdown of October 2013 in an ill-fated effort to defund the Affordable Care Act.

Cruz balks at negative comparisons to Obama. “In my time in the Senate, you can accuse me of being a lot of things, but a back-bencher is not one of them,” he told CNN last month.

But for the non-senators expected to enter the race, these flashy young senators’ lack of executive experience is a key talking point.  

“We have elected a president who was a phenomenal speaker, but he was two years as a United States senator [when he started running for president], and had no record of accomplishment, and before that was a state senator with very little record of accomplishment,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said recently. “And what did we get?”

In the end, it will be up to all three freshmen to convince voters that they really do have the experience, character, and temperament to handle the presidency. In addition to his Senate experience, Rubio brings to the table nine years as a member of the Florida state legislature, including two as speaker of the House. Cruz served as solicitor general of Texas for five-plus years, and argued cases before the US Supreme Court.

Paul, an ophthalmologist, is a first-time office-holder, but was heavily involved in the campaigns of his father, former longtime Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas, who ran for president three times.

The fact that Obama won twice may be the senators’ biggest argument of all for running now instead of waiting (though it will go unstated). Obama’s first term may have been on-the-job training, but winning a second term showed that for a majority of Americans, the result was good enough.

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