I’ve liked Marco Rubio for some time. Just lately, though, people keep telling me that our relationship is on the rocks. I’m getting a little tired of it.
For weeks now, most things I read about Rubio make me feel like I’ve just stepped into marriage counseling. Respected journalistic personages muse for paragraphs about whether he has that special “it” factor. They talk about “trust gaps” and “presidential auras,” and why Rubio has yet to “fully launch.” Calling Tinkerbell! Rubio needs a pinch of fairy dust, STAT!
Often these meanderings make only the barest gesture in the direction of Rubio’s record, platform, biography, or anything of substance. It’s as though we’re a casting committee, debating whether he should be our Prince Charming.
Yes, He’s Our Prince Charming
To me, it’s all distastefully Cosmopolitan. Still, it would have been tolerable a year ago, when we still had the luxury of time, along with a wealth of options. Back in “clown car” days, we were allowed to be a bit picky. We could sit back, sip our martinis, and obsess over tiny flaws. Scott Walker? Too boring! Ted Cruz? Do you want to look at that weirdly flat nose-bridge for four years? When we had a whole album of candidates, why not shoot for perfection?
News flash, everybody. We don’t have a whole album anymore. We have a lying demagogue breathing down our necks, and he’s rapidly becoming the prohibitive favorite to burn the GOP into the ground. The whole party is poised on the edge of a cliff. Despite it all, people are still finding time to nitpick Rubio’s not-quite-perfect personality, to twist completely reasonable phrases into gaffes, and to insinuate that he’s probably the only politician in the field that might not be fully trustworthy or adequately experienced.
Stepping out of Neverland, sensible conservatives should see that Rubio would be a very solid choice even by “clown car” standards. He’s pro-life, pro-tradition, and a practicing Christian. He understands the problems with big government. He surrounds himself with strong policy advisors and actually listens to their ideas. He’s politically talented and has broad-based personality appeal. He should be un-electably conservative, but in this year of insanity, has a strong chance. By all reasonable conservative calculations, Rubio is great and, next to Donald Trump, a dream.
Despite that, we keep clearing our throats and looking away, as though Rubio’s fly were down. It’s becoming downright foolish. How does his “trust gap” compare to the Donald’s? And who cares about this nebulous “it factor”? What are we, 13-year-old-girls?
Time to Own Our Narratives
I’m not one for censoring honest opinions, and serious analysis of Rubio’s platform and record is of course the sort of thing good journalists should offer. After a point, though, we have to take responsibility for the narratives we help to create.
Mollie Hemingway has written an excellent piece on why the media need to acknowledge their complicity in helping to create the Trump monster. Desperate for ratings and social media buzz, they let Trump play them like a fiddle, leaving voters with the impression that the mogul is the kind of can-do badass they need in the White House. (Unfortunately, playing the media is probably the only thing we can trust Trump to do well.)
Ted Cruz is planted in many people’s minds as the more-responsible but less-badass anti-establishment figure. If you were kinda enjoying the populist moment but weren’t willing to go to Trumpian extremes, Cruz is probably your pick. More on that in a moment.
Because populism is so obviously the story of Election 2016, it’s harder to find a line on Rubio. He’s got a splash of Tea Party populism in his past, but in the intervening years has mostly been doing things other than breaking furniture. So we cast him as the straight man, and obsess over whether or not we can live with a “straight man.” In a way, this really is a marriage counseling moment. We’re trying to decide whether we can live with Prince Charming when we kind of had our hearts set on a bad boy.
What Ordinary Voters See
Ordinary voters don’t obsess over these electoral dramas to the extent we do, although increasingly, they are aware of them. For many, electoral news permeates their consciousness sporadically, perhaps through “trending” headlines on their Facebook feed or background noise as they walk through an airport. A few days before their primary (if they’re planning to vote), they might skim a few stories and pick someone. What impression have we given to that sort of voter?
First and primarily, we’ve told him that Trump is a really really really really big deal, super-strong, super-savvy, and able to make all the right heads explode. Secondarily, Rubio is kind of a nobody, eminently forgettable, perfectly representative of a weak and feckless establishment, and vaguely dissatisfying to the People Who Know. So, voters, who are you going to pick? The Big Man, or that other guy over there?
This narrative, though, is almost entirely the creation of populism-obsessed journalists. If you care about trivialities like 1) who might win the general election, or 2) how effectively that person would govern, it’s wildly misleading. Those narratives tell us far more about Rubio’s polling numbers than any auras or magical “it” factor that Rubio himself may or may not possess. The tens of millions in negative advertising (mostly from “establishment” candidates) haven’t helped him either.
In short, we’ve done real damage to conservatism by perpetuating these impressions. It may be too late to reverse it now, but then again maybe not. (Some Super Tuesday voters may just be tuning in around now.) Perhaps we should give it a try?
The Cruz Factor
I like Cruz. I believe that both he and Rubio are committed conservatives, and I fervently wish that both of our young Cubans would stop attacking each other and find a way to join forces against the malevolent force that is Trump. Rubio has long been my personal pick, but at this point, I would probably cry tears of joy at the inauguration of a President Cruz, just thinking what disasters had been averted.
Nevertheless, I’m starting to hate Cruz’s presence in this race, and not only because of the obvious three-man problem. I hate it because he is serving as an enabler for people who still want to hide from the implications of our crippling mismanagement of movement conservatism.
The story of this race is one of populist energies jumping their firebreak and raging out of control. It’s good to have a measure of populist energy in your party. Too much, and you risk burning the barn down. That’s now a very imminent threat, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves: if it happens, it will be bad. A survey of modern history shows us that populist movements have an excellent track record, provided your goal is to turn stable, prosperous nations into wastelands of corruption and civil unrest.
Many people share the blame for this. We can blame high-ranking party leaders for failing to provide healthier outlets for these energies. We can blame populist media personalities for building the pyre too high. We can blame Barack Obama and the Democrats for getting the wheels of populism churning through the 2008 uprising and its aftermath. There is some justice to all of these accusations, and of course, at the end of the day, it’s the voters who make poor decisions in the ballot box.
Right now, though, the finger-pointing needs to take a back seat. The task of the moment is rescuing the barn from the raging conflagration. Many people have realized this. But some Cruz supporters aren’t sure they’re on board yet, because you know? Their hands are still a little cold. And does anyone have any marshmallows?
Not 24 hours after Trump pocketed South Carolina’s 50 delegates, Cruz supporters were all over social media screaming about Rubio’s perfidious “establishment” connections, and how “nothing would change” under a Rubio administration. With the timbers starting to blacken and smoke billowing in the windows, they’re still holding out for their preferred, tamer populist option. Have they somehow not noticed the giant, looming shadow of Trump darkening everything else in sight? Or are they just unwilling to admit that they want the Donald to gobble us all down?
People, you helped start this fire, so it’s time to choose. Admit that this party coup has turned into a disaster, and help control the damage by pressuring both candidates to form an alliance of some kind. Alternatively, admit that you’re rooting for ashes. You would prefer combustion to a smart, sensible, very conservative candidate like Rubio.
Either way, let’s quit the marriage counseling. It’s silly to work on patching up your relationships when you’re about to be cremated.