Marco Rubio ran for the presidency promising a path to a new American century. It turns out Republican voters just wanted to return to the last one. Rubio exited the presidential stakes last night after a crushing defeat in his home state with a speech that reads like an epitaph for the Republican coalition as we knew it. And in a way, it is – it is an acknowledgement that what Rubio was selling this cycle was not what people wanted, nor was he ever the candidate who spoke to their concerns and fears.
For all the talk of lane clearing and for all the general election analyses which showed him on paper to be the most competitive candidate, the fact is that Rubio routinely underperformed his numbers, failed to reach his marks, and could not build beyond his existing base of support. He exits the stage now with a sour taste in his mouth, a crushing defeat, and a repudiation of the post-2012 GOP analysis of what course the party ought to take.
I come to bury Marco, not to praise him, but this feels a bit like knocking RG3’s passing motion as he writhes on the field – so let us praise him first. The overall picture I have of Marco Rubio given limited interaction is that he is a good man with a natural charm and political skill. His faith is authentic, he is a loving father, and his beliefs about the world firmly ingrained. He is eloquent, and can be very inspirational, and he is young – Democrats were right to fear him as a general election candidate. The future political path for him is crowded, but it’s possible he can make a political comeback in another role.
The failure of Rubio’s campaign seems more and more to be a failure of the people Rubio chose to surround himself with as opposed to a failure of the candidate himself. The dividing line between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio this cycle is this: Cruz’s staff has run a campaign that has given him every opportunity to succeed, with an organized ground game and a focus on combining traditional door knocking politics with better analytics. Rubio’s staff did not. Switch the campaign teams, and you wonder where Marco Rubio would be standing today.
Instead, Rubio’s team adopted a top-down media-focused approach. As campaign manager Terry Sullivan told the NYT in December: “More people in Iowa see Marco on ‘Fox and Friends’ than see Marco when he is in Iowa.” But that approach ultimately led to the campaign not having anything to support the candidate when he stumbled – and so without the necessary organization, it left Marco Rubio in the final days calling for a reckoning.
‘There will be a reckoning,’ he warned. ‘There will be a reckoning in the mainstream media, where all these networks and cable networks are going to have to ask themselves why did they give so much coverage for the sake of ratings,’ he said. ‘There will be a reckoning in the conservative movement, where a lot of people who for a long time have espoused conservative principles seem to not care about those anymore in rallying around Donald Trump because they like his attitude. I think there are a lot of people in the conservative movement who are going to spend years and years explaining to people how they fell into this and how they allowed this to happen.’
For now, though, it is Rubio’s reckoning that’s at hand. And not just because of Trump or cable television networks. Rubio’s strategy was always an inside straight—overly reliant on a candidate’s ability to dominate free national media in order to outperform, outwit and eventually outlast a wide field of rivals. It was sketched out by an inner circle of advisers who believed they could eschew the very fundamentals of presidential campaigning because they had a candidate who transcended. That’s exactly what happened in 2016; it just turned out Rubio wasn’t the one transcending.
Why wasn’t he transcending? Ross Douthat ascribes Rubio’s fall to the death of Bushism, and is worth quoting at length.
Even more than George W. Bush’s own brother, Rubio tried to make himself an heir to Bushism, and to build a bridge between the last Republican administration and the one that he aspired to lead… in purely ideological terms, what primary voters were rejecting when they rejected him was the political synthesis of George W. Bush.
In domestic politics, that synthesis had four pillars: a sincere social conservatism rooted in a personal narrative of faith; a center-hugging ‘compassionate conservatism’ on issues related to poverty and education; the pursuit of comprehensive immigration reform as a means to win Latinos for the G.O.P.; and large across-the-board tax cuts to placate the party’s donors and supply-side wing. In foreign policy, Bushism began with the promise of restraint but ultimately came to mean hawkishness shot through with Wilsonian idealism, a vision of a crusading America whose interests and values were perfectly aligned.
From his arrival in Washington, Rubio seemed intent on imitating this combination of ideas. He associated himself with neoconservative foreign policy proposals and personnel. He became the face of comprehensive immigration reform, take three. He wooed a rising generation of evangelical and Catholic activists. He filled out a domestic policy portfolio with ‘reform conservative’ ideas on welfare reform, health care, higher education and family-friendly tax policy. And then to make sure nobody accused him of being some sort of redistributionist squish, he attached those ideas to a sweeping capital gains and corporate tax cut…
But alas for Rubio it turned out that Republicans didn’t want any of this.
They didn’t want comprehensive immigration reform, which shouldn’t have been surprising because they hadn’t wanted it when Bush was president, either; it was an idea that had hung around and hung around without ever finding a conservative constituency outside Washington. They didn’t want an optimistic, next-generation version of social conservatism, preferring either Ted Cruz’s old-time religion or Donald Trump as the church’s heathen bodyguard in a post-Christian landscape. They didn’t care about the size of Rubio’s tax cut, because all the candidates were promising a big tax cut, they were all equally implausible, and voters — even conservative voters — just aren’t as tax-obsessed as they were in the Reaganite glory days.
They did want, perhaps, a different domestic policy than the uncreative platform Romney had offered, one that promised less to the wealthy and more to the working class. But Rubio’s halfhearted reform conservatism was outbid and overwhelmed by Trump’s brassy promises to renegotiate trade deals, slap on tariffs, leave entitlements untouched and bring back the jobs of 1965.
And they did want a kind of hawkishness — but not a Wilsonian hawkishness, in service to an ambitious grand strategy to stabilize or remake the Middle East. No, they wanted a Jacksonian hawkishness, one that promised to rain destruction on our enemies without the mess of nation building.
These desires don’t add up to a new Republican synthesis, and the candidates who have catered to them more successfully haven’t devised one. Trump’s populist, illiberal Jacksonianism can’t unite the party the way Bush once did, and Cruz’s hard-edge social and economic conservatism probably can’t win the median voter the way Bushism did twice (well, once plus a close second).
But they do add up to the desire for a new synthesis, and an understanding that whatever the Republican Party needs now, it can’t just be what worked for Bush and Karl Rove until Iraq went sour and Wall Street melted down.
Wise words. Now for the gravediggers: there is absolutely no question that by staying in past the point when it was obvious his prospects were toast, Rubio left in a manner that made it harder to prevent Donald Trump from reaching 1,237 delegates, and cost Ted Cruz significant delegates in a number of states. Sometimes this makes for frustratingly close margins: In North Carolina, where Cruz would’ve needed half of Rubio’s 87,792 votes to win – but even more so in Missouri, where Cruz would’ve needed less than 2,000 of Rubio’s 58,594 votes to win.
Just as Sean Davis predicted last week, Rubio’s obsession with staying in through Florida left him with an embarrassing loss and undermined everyone else in Illinois, North Carolina, and Missouri – and that’s leaving out his effect in prior contests.
It remains to be seen whether people will remember Rubio’s final week of remarks and speeches more than they recall how out of step his message proved with Republican voters, and how he held on too long after that had already been proven time and again. As it stands, it is the polar opposite of his experience in 2010 – this year, he was a man in the wrong place at the wrong time.