There was a reason why Democrats feared Marco Rubio as their most formidable possible opponent in 2016. Rubio was a computer model of the ideal Republican presidential candidate as imagined by those conducting the GOP postmortem after the 2012 election. He was an intelligent, young, articulate, Tea Party conservative who was also Hispanic. Just as important, his was an optimistic voice that sought to recreate the positive spirit of Reagan conservatism for the 21st century while also possessing an authoritative grasp of the issues, especially foreign policy. But in the aftermath of a crushing defeat at the hands of Donald Trump in his home state of Florida that brought Rubio’s faltering presidential campaign to an end, it’s easy to see what was wrong with that formulation.
Those lauding Rubio’s graceful and eloquent exit from the campaign are assuring us that we haven’t heard the last of him and given his enormous talent and youth, let’s hope they’re right. Yet those who believe his failure was merely a matter of making the mistake of running in the wrong year aren’t grasping the full significance of what has happened. It was the wrong year for an optimist to be running for the Republican presidential nomination. But it may now also be the wrong party to be running as an optimist. Seen from that perspective, the question may not be so much whether Rubio has a bright political future but whether the Republican Party that emerges from this election is one in which any conservative optimist cut from the same mold as Rubio would have a chance.
Any fair analysis of Rubio’s candidacy must start with the fact that he made a major miscalculation in 2013 by backing a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill. It was a noble concept but it was one that the vast majority of Republicans would never accept. While reform was necessary, conservative opponents of the bill were right when they said President Obama couldn’t be trusted to secure the border. More importantly, illegal immigration emerged as the key issue for grassroots conservatives and wound up transforming Rubio from a conservative insurgent to a pillar of the increasingly unpopular party establishment. That alone may have doomed him in 2016.
Rubio’s decision to run was also a gamble in that it forced him into competition with his former mentor and friend Jeb Bush. Rubio was right to sense that Bush was out of touch with the voters and rusty after having not run for office since 2002. But with both of them in the race, it wound up splitting the support either might have had had they run alone. Worse than that, the ire of Bush and his clan at Rubio’s effrontery in not waiting his turn made the Florida senator the number one object of their attacks. Thus, tens of millions of the enormous campaign war chest that Bush amassed was spent on trashing Rubio.
Rubio might have survived that massive attack, but his meltdown moment in the last debate before the New Hampshire primary was the decisive moment when his presidential hopes were probably definitively sunk. Rubio withered under an attack from Chris Christie and wound up being the subject of parodies. Had he not made that error, he might have finished second and knocked off Bush and John Kasich that night. Instead, Bush lived on for another week undermining Rubio and Kasich was able to stay in until tonight when he won Ohio.
But even if that hadn’t happened, Rubio probably would not have won a single primary that he wound up losing. His strategy was flawed from the start since he failed to concentrate on getting an early win somewhere. Rubio waiting until Florida to win an important state was as foolish as Rudy Giuliani’s similar decision in 2008. Others will also point to his decision to engage in some distasteful gibes at Trump’s expense in the last weeks of his campaign, something for which he correctly apologized.
Yet a flawed strategy, one bad debate moment and the mistake of getting down in the mud with Trump don’t really explain Rubio’s defeat. As hard as it is for his many admirers to admit, Rubio was out of step with the spirit of the party’s voters in 2016. Far from flocking to someone channeling Reagan-like optimism, it was actual a turn off for grass roots Republicans. Nor did they care about his superior knowledge of the issues especially compared with Trump.
What the voters wanted in 2016 was attitude and anger. They wanted a war on the Republican Party leadership. Worse than that, they preferred Trump’s empty rhetoric about American greatness and prejudicial remarks about Mexicans and Muslims to Rubio’s serious-minded approach to the war on Islamist terror. They also wanted populist rhetoric about trade and protectionism that was anathema to an optimistic Reagan conservative like Rubio. Far from disqualifying Trump from the presidency, as perhaps they should have done, the frontrunner’s dog whistles on racism, his outrageous gaffes, and even his belligerent encouragement to violence at his campaign rallies also only solidified support for him.
The truth is, even if Bush had used his money to attack Trump or if Rubio had been smart enough to move into New Hampshire or South Carolina or some early state in an all-out push to win an early state or even if he had made no mistakes in debates, Rubio probably never had a chance to win in a year in which Trump’s fraudulent populism was the key to victory.
If that was all there was to it, Rubio’s supporters could put this defeat down to experience and hope that in four, eight or even 12 years from now, a more seasoned Rubio could hope to triumph. Yet what they need to worry about is whether Trump is merely a passing fancy that will sweep over the GOP and then disappear after November.
But the scale of Trump’s victory in the primaries raises the possibility that what he is doing is something that may fundamentally transform the GOP from a conservative party to a populist one that bears no real resemblance to the “children of Reagan” message that Rubio sought to spread.
Such an outcome is not a certainty. The majority of Republicans may still resist Trump and he may yet be denied the nomination if it comes down to a contested convention this summer in Cleveland, even at the cost of a party schism since the frontrunner’s supporters will never accept such an outcome. Reaganite conservatism is far from dead and its advocates will not be silenced by Trump’s wave of populism. But as Trump keeps rolling up victories on the strength of anger and resentment rather than Rubio’s optimistic vision for a GOP that can attract young people and Hispanics, then it’s fair to ask what the future of the GOP will be with this kind of leadership both in 2016 and perhaps the future. A lot more than Marco Rubio’s hopes for national office rest on the answer to that question.