Marco Rubio lost his home state of Florida in a landslide to Donald Trump on Tuesday night, suspending his campaign with a rousing speech that called on Americans to reject the “politics of resentment,” which he warned will “leave us not just a fractured party but a fractured nation.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Rubio was supposed to save the Republican Party. He was supposed to be the face of a rejuvenated and optimistic GOP that appealed to millennials and Hispanics. He was supposed to be the earnest spokesman for an invigorated conservatism that would guide the party away from its crony capitalist ways. He was the boy with the golden sword, and now he is gone.
In retrospect, it seems like Rubio picked exactly the wrong moment to gamble his political career on a presidential run. His youth and message of hope have not resonated with a GOP electorate (or a large minority of it) more interested in tearing down an imaginary “establishment,” rejecting core tenets of conservatism, and settling scores with the Left. No one really saw any of this coming when Rubio declared his candidacy last April, nor was Rubio the first victim of Trumpism. (The first victim, Rick Perry, also picked the wrong year to run—in 2012—and might have fared better coming into this cycle with a clean slate.)
Torpedoed in Flight
Yet there were early warnings that Rubio should have stayed out of the 2016 election—even before Trump upended it. More than a year ago, it seemed unlikely Rubio would win any of the early states. Even without Trump, the field was always going to be crowded with well-funded challengers who could boast more experience and greater accomplishments.
For many conservatives, however, Rubio still held great promise. His failed Gang of Eight immigration bill notwithstanding, he seemed the ideal candidate to deny Hillary Clinton the White House. At one point it seemed that some Democrats might even prefer Rubio to Clinton.
But then things went awry. The primary season didn’t just get ugly, it got dumbed-down. The immigration debate devolved into arguing the relative merits of a southern border wall and the deportation of all Muslims. Rubio’s past immigration reform sins, which would arguably have been a minor speed bump in another election cycle, became a stumbling block.
Bizarrely, at various points in this cycle, pundits claimed Rubio was the preferred candidate of the hated and corrupt “GOP establishment.” Never mind that he defeated Charlie Crist—an actual establishment candidate—to win his Senate seat in 2010. Never mind that he was one of the early Tea Party candidates swept into Washington in a wave of anti-establishment fervor. Never mind that GOP elites and Jeb Bush’s super-PAC never wanted Rubio to run in the first place and spent tens of millions attacking him as Trump gained momentum in the early primaries.
Lazy Smears Work Once Again
Never mind all that. Pegging Rubio as “the establishment candidate” was an easy—and lazy— way to malign him. And it worked. As Jonathan Last noted recently, if the establishment rallied to Rubio after Bush dropped out, “It’s an act of surrender. The Republican establishment has lost. They are embracing Rubio in an attempt to form a coalition in which they’re the junior partner.”
In his speech Tuesday night, Rubio called for a revolution within the party: “We need a new political establishment in our party. Not one more interested in winning elections than in solving problems.” He also appealed to Trump supporters. Much of his speech was aimed directly at them: “Do not give into fear, do not give into frustration.”
It is all a shame. The fact is, had Rubio been elected, he would have been perhaps the most conservative Republican ever to win the White House. He might also have been the unifier our country needs. Before he closed the night with a benediction for America, Rubio said: “We should have seen this coming.” He could have been speaking for us all.