The Rise and Fall of Marco Rubio

The Rise and Fall of Marco Rubio
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MIAMI – Four years ago in January, a charismatic freshman senator from Florida gave a speech on immigration that was so evocative and well-received that many prominent Republicans—and some Democrats—thought the GOP had found its future.

Speaking extemporaneously and drawing on his family’s immigrant experience, Marco Rubio was providing an answer to the tough language Republicans were starting to use when talking about undocumented immigrants.

“For those of us who come from the conservative movement,” Rubio said, “we must admit that there are those among us who have used rhetoric that is harsh and intolerable, inexcusable, and we must admit, myself included, that sometimes we’ve been too slow in condemning that language for what it is.”

He chastised Democrats, too, for using the issue for political advantage instead of trying to solve it. Then he added this:

“There is broad support in America for the notion that for those children that were brought here at a very young age, by their parents through no fault of their own, who have grown up here their entire lives, and now want to serve in the military or are high academic achievers and want to go to school and contribute to America’s future, I think there is broad bipartisan support for the notion that we should somehow figure out a way to accommodate them.”

This attitude stood in contrast to Mitt Romney, who had reduced the roiling immigration issue to a nonsensical phrase: “self-deportation.” It would help Romney dispatch his Republican rivals, notably Texas Gov. Rick Perry, while compromising his general election chances against Barack Obama. As things turned out in the 2016 campaign, which ended for Rubio Tuesday night, he was already harking to a Reaganite past while Romney was providing a glimpse into the GOP’s Trumpian future.

Two years earlier, in 2010, a Washington, D.C.-based political writer arrived in South Florida curious about the roiling politics of this key mega-state. Popular Gov. Charlie Crist had been a shoo-in for re-election until the national Republican establishment talked him into running for an open Senate seat instead.

The problem was that Marco Rubio, then only 38, had already staked his claim to it. Unknown in Washington, Rubio was a rising star here. A charismatic Cuban-American who’d emerged from the competitive politics of Little Havana and rocketed through the ranks as a state legislator in Tallahassee, Rubio was skilled enough to earn Jeb Bush’s admiration when Jeb was governor and conservative enough to garner the allegiance of Florida’s many Tea Party organizations.

His answers to the visiting Washington reporter were so cautious and repetitive, however, that Rubio was asked, mostly in jest, if he was a robot. This brought a laugh from the candidate. What did the journalist really want to know, he said. “I want to know,” this reporter replied, “how a guy who dealt with Bush and the Democrats in Tallahassee so effectively has such enthusiastic Tea Party support.”

Rubio answered that he had been surprised himself by the depth of his support among the conservative grassroots. He attributed it to his own conservatism—his advocacy for lower taxes, limited government, and constitutional restraint in the judiciary. Tuesday night, as he suspended his 2016 presidential campaign after being soundly thrashed in Florida—and in many other states—by Donald Trump, Rubio noted that “in 2010, the Tea Party wave carried me and others into office.”

The force with which that wave crashed on him in 2016 was stunning in its ferocity—and Rubio admitted he was late in recognizing it. “America is in the middle of a real political storm, a real tsunami, and we should have seen this coming,” he said. “Look, people are angry and people are very frustrated.”

At the outset of this campaign, March 15 was circled on the calendar by prominent Republican officials, and not only because it began the season of winner-take-all primaries. This was the day that Florida Republicans would choose between their two favorite sons, Jeb and Marco, with the victor getting a leg up for the nomination.

But Jeb Bush was long gone before tonight, and Rubio’s event here—planned to be held in the spacious gymnasium at Florida International University—was instead shunted to a small hallway outside the arena. The day was carried by the brash New York billionaire waiting to speak a little while later from his Palm Beach weekend palace an hour’s drive to the north.

Rubio’s crowd was small, but passionate. Some were in denial. “Fight to the convention!” one woman shouted as the candidate began to speak.

“God bless you, Marco!” another interrupted moments later.

For his part, Rubio invoked Providence to ask for blessings on his party, the conservative movement, and the United States. “I ask the American people,” he said, “do not give in to the fear. Do not give in to frustration.”

But fear and frustration were very much in evidence here, even among Cuban-American voters who’d been Rubio’s original base of support. “The middle class is just going to disappear,” 48-year-old unemployed paralegal Diane Grenada, told Florida reporters this week. “It’s bad out here. Wages are lower, hours are longer—and that’s if you can find a job.”

Fifty-two-year-old Mario Rodriguez, a Cuban native living in Hialeah, became a citizen a month ago—just in time to vote for Trump. “I’m an immigrant in this country, and I came here legally,” he said. “You don’t have a country if you don’t respect the laws of the country.”

Similar echoes of Trump’s rhetoric, and his many attacks ads, were even stronger—and much more vitriolic—among Anglo conservatives. Some Tea Party leaders used words like “betrayal” and “revenge” to explain their defection from Rubio to Trump.

“He betrayed all of the people of Florida—he’s got the worst attendance record in the Senate,” said Orlando-area Tea Party leader Dan Ray. The attendance record is a Trump talking point, but Ray, who showed up for television interviews on Election Day wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “Time to play the TRUMP card,” was just warming up.

“He betrayed the grassroots people who supported him in the first place,” Ray said of Rubio. “He blew it; he got mesmerized by Washington.”

Why Trump? Ray was asked in his CNN appearance. The reply: “He loves America.” Why not Ted Cruz? “Ted Cruz was born on Canadian soil to a Cuban citizen.”

Channeling one of Trump’s uglier lines of attack, Ray added that neither Cruz nor Rubio is even eligible to run for president, “period, Amen.”

This is wrong, but if Trump and his supporters are clueless about the Constitution, he proved himself a genius at reducing his opponents’ perceived weakness to a single pejorative phrase. Bush was “a low-energy individual,” while Cruz is “Lying Ted.” Trump translated Florida’s junior senator’s perceived lack of gravitas into “Little Marco.”

Even before then, Trump had clearly gotten under Rubio’s skin. For a few days Rubio tried using Trump-style insults on the front-runner, ridiculing his hair, makeup, potty habits, and the size of his hands. “And you know what they say about guys with small hands,” he said.

This strategy didn’t help, either, and Rubio spent more time apologizing for attacking Trump on this basis than he ever had attacking Trump. Some pundits compared this episode to the “Dean Scream,” Howard Dean’s infamous 2004 swan song in Iowa, but this wasn’t the problem. (It also wasn’t fair to Dean. He didn’t really scream, and he didn’t lose Iowa because he yelled; he yelled because he lost Iowa.) Likewise, Rubio’s desperate gambit came because nothing he was doing was working.

A more pivotal moment came in the final New Hampshire debate, when Rubio’s momentum was stalled by his weak response to a withering attack from Chris Christie. Rubio was also on the receiving end of tens of millions of dollars’ worth of super PAC-funded attack ads, first from Bush’s camp, then from Democrats who feared he’d be a tough general election customer for Hillary Clinton, and finally from Trump, who administered the coup de grace here in Rubio’s home state.

In the process, at least for now, Trump has remade the Republican Party in his own image. To Rubio and his supporters, this is not a pretty picture. But to 45 percent of those who voted in the GOP primary, it’s beautiful.

Perhaps that’s the half-life of a rising political star in the Age of Social Media. In any event, things certainly have changed in Florida politics in a very short time.

The immigration speech that stamped Rubio as a star four years ago was delivered to the Hispanic Leadership Network, a group formed by Bush. At the outset of the 2016 campaign, Bush and Rubio both sort of said they wouldn’t run for president if the other guy did. This was never sustainable—it begged the question of who got to decide first—and when Bush jumped the gun on his former protégé by going around the country raising $100 million for his super PAC while claiming he was still making up his mind, Rubio jumped in. Bush, to put it mildly, didn’t take this well.

Jeb’s own exit from the 2016 campaign was a sign that this was no longer the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush—or even George W. Bush. Jeb Bush, calling for a little common sense and a little empathy when talking about illegal immigrants, termed their journey to America “an act of love” for their children. For this observation, he was pilloried by Trump and others. Rubio, for his part, had already distanced himself from his “gang of eight” compromise, tacking right again as the campaign started. But this hurt him with political moderates and pro-immigration Latinos.

“To progressives on this issue, like myself, I do not know where he stands, and question what he truly believes,” Florida International University professor Ediberto Roman told RCP Tuesday night.  “It is sad, because I believe he is the brightest and most charismatic candidate -- if only he were more consistent, he would have done much better.”

Roman was one of those who’d praised Rubio’s 2012 immigration speech. Something else was striking about that talk as well: In a harbinger of the 2016 campaign trail, Rubio was interrupted by protesters from a pro-immigration Hispanic group. The group, Presente Action, had hired a prop plane to circle the meeting hotel with a banner reading, “Hey Marco: No Somos Rubios.” Rubio translated the message aloud—“We Aren’t Rubios”—and explained the play on words: In Spanish, “rubio” means blond or fair. “Marco, we're not blond,” he said, translating the banner with a smile, “which, by coincidence, neither am I—although if I'm in the Senate for another year, I may start being a little bit more gray.”

The audience laughed, but the hecklers in the hall began chant: “Marco Rubio, Latino or Tea Partino?” Rubio had an interesting response: He asked the security guards to let them remain in the venue “because I think that they're going to be interested in what I'm going to say.” The crowd cheered and began a chant of its own, “Let them stay! Let them stay!” -- which works on a couple of levels. 

“They came here to a crowd that they know may not be friendly,” Rubio said. "I thank God that I'm in a country where they can do that.” 

Although the country has changed a bit since then, the locale of that 2012 speech is an interesting footnote, too. The Hispanic Leadership Network met that January at the swank Doral Golf Resort & Spa. Later that year, the place was sold—to Donald Trump’s company. It is now the Trump National Doral, Miami.

On Tuesday, the front desk clerk, a Colombian immigrant, is asked if she’s ever met The Donald.

Yes, she replies, just last week. “He made a personal appearance here,” she says, her voice rising with excitement. “He’s super-nice!”

How about the Doral, I ask her -- “is it still a great place?”

“Even better!” she says. I have to remind myself she’s talking about a golf hotel, and not the Republican Party as she adds, “Mr. Trump changed it. Everything has been renovated.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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