Now that Marco Rubio is running as if his team has all the proof they need that he’s really the GOP’s destiny, two immediate questions arise. Is he about to step on a land mine? Is anyone about to set one underfoot?
It’s easy to imagine how somebody might. We’ve read this script before. If you’re out to wreck an insurgent campaign, especially one with ballooning establishment cred, there’s really nothing like digging up dirt from a candidate’s past—the more salacious the better.
For an oppo team, there’s no greater gift than lurid news that undermines a rival’s brand. The family man with the love child; the drug warrior with the college hijinks; the traditional-marriage champion with the gay (or bi) rumors: these are all classic tropes, ready for exploitation. A candidate targeted this way can’t be too careful.
As Rubio himself is learning the hard way, he doesn’t just need to watch his back. He has to watch his footwear.
Feeling Strong Enough to Take Risks
Rubio, even more than the cocksure Mr. Trump, appears to believe instead that risky business is his only shot at the White House. Evidently, his campaign has calculated that a certain amount of hubris is necessary to break out of the pack where Eeyores and buzzkills prevail.
There’s no question that Rubio’s Iowa speech, celebrating his caucus bronze as if he’d just cleared the field, was deliberately calibrated to raise eyebrows—and hackles. Victory is mine, Rubio seemed to say. Here, have a taste. This is a campaign that would sooner court disaster than defeat.
After all, in a race where both Trump and Clinton are net negative in the national polls, Rubio’s favorables blow the field out of the water. That’s the kind of political capital you can take to the bank—or pile on red and spin the wheel.
Unfortunately, if Rubio has so far been particularly successful at gambling big to win big on the trail, he hasn’t managed to mitigate the real risk to his hotshot brand. Rather than worrying about personal smears, he should recognize his rivals have a much more lethal weapon to use against him.
Marco Rubio, the Left’s Easy Mark
It’s not just that Rubio looks so full of himself (despite constantly beating the drum of Christian humility!), or that even if you appreciate his personality, he might still strike you, as he did the Tampa Bay Times, as “a likable opportunist with a persuasive sales pitch but a thin record of accomplishment.” That apparent burn actually describes the Platonic ideal of the upwardly mobile young American—a model that hordes of talented people (including news journalists) emulate out of the same sense of necessity Team Rubio feels.
No, there’s something more here. The trouble with Rubio’s history in Washington is not that he did so little, but that he did so badly. At decision point after decision point, Rubio’s judgment led him astray, snookered by the Beltway establishment. On immigration, he bought what Chuck Schumer was selling; on Libya, what Hillary Clinton was. With unforced errors like these, who needs land mines?
Rubio has not closed the trust gap with conservatives who worry he’ll get duped again in the White House by canny but squishy operators and scheming mentor types. He hasn’t even closed the trust gap with Republicans concerned he’ll get rolled by Democrats where the presidency matters most—filling vacancies on the Supreme Court, for instance.
Avoiding the Problem Makes It Bigger
To be sure, Rubio can’t be expected to solve every crisis and tend every garden right now. The way he’s chosen to run underscores that fact. Thanks to his theory of the race, which has led to a national campaign with a bare minimum of local politicking, he’s poorly disposed to build confidence with a wary grassroots by pressing the flesh.
The campaign seems to know, judging by its sense of urgency, that there’s not much time left on the clock to cement Rubio as the Great Electable Hope. But the candidate does not seem to grasp that he’s running out of grace as well as time. The more Rubio pushes off a reckoning with his trust gap, the more problematic and forced his overweening and overconfident approach becomes—and the less it comes off as the natural or excusable mode for him to be in.
Given the bizarre and foreboding dynamics of this race, there’s a certain clear logic in Rubio running as if a little hubris were a necessity. But one of the risks built into that plan is a feedback loop of delusion. If Rubio thinks that, because he’s a golden boy, things like the Gang of Eight and the Libya intervention won’t stick to him on the campaign trail, he’ll be all the more inclined to take the odds on the critics saying he’s a dupe.
The trouble is, Rubio’s smartest skeptics—and rivals—know the real issue isn’t his ability to win the White House. It’s what he’ll do once he gets there.