One of the most revealing sidelights to the recent Florida recounts was to see Sen. Marco Rubio tossing off conspiracy-mongering tweets about missing ballots and stolen votes, a positively Trumpian display that more than a few people who once admired Rubio found disheartening. The Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan reports:
"Just four years ago, Marco Rubio was gearing up to run for president with an inclusive and sunny message designed to capture the imagination of a modernizing Republican Party — and maybe even the country.
"Those days, and that candidate, are long gone.
“Like many Republicans, the second-term Florida senator has sounded more and more like President Trump since the 2016 election — striking a notably darker and foreboding tone while adopting some of Trump’s slash-and-burn political tactics and controversial positions.”
This could be an object lesson in the moral perils of political survival, a story about how easy it is for a politician to lose his soul if he cares too much about one day reaching the brass ring of the presidency. But Rubio’s story is also a microcosm of everything that has happened to the Republican Party over the last decade — its promise and its shameful descent.
In fact, you can get an almost complete understanding of that history just by marking Rubio's highs and lows, his setbacks and ill-fated reinventions.
Rubio won election to the Senate in 2010 as part of the tea party wave and was immediately hailed as a future star. He was intensely conservative, but lacked the off-putting hard edge of so many of his ideological compatriots. Many believed he was the person who could sell Reagan-style conservatism to a changing America. Eloquent and charismatic, Rubio was young (only 39 at the time), bilingual, and more tuned in to pop culture than your average senator. He liked to quote hip-hop lyrics on the Senate floor.
Not long after the election of 2012, which many Republicans felt Mitt Romney lost in no small part because of his harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric, Rubio appeared on the cover of Time magazine under the headline, “The Republican Savior.” The accompanying article said, “GOP leaders know they have a demographic problem. They hope Rubio can help provide the solution, which is why they’ve chosen him to deliver the response to Obama’s State of the Union address on Feb. 12-in English and Spanish.”
Rubio worked hard with the bipartisan Gang of 8 to produce an immigration bill everyone could live with, one that included both increased border security and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Then came the backlash. The immigration bill passed the Senate in June 2013 but died in the House, and Rubio found himself the target of withering contempt from many of the same right-wing media figures who had celebrated him so recently but now portrayed him as an advocate of amnesty for illegals. So when he decided to run for president in 2016, he thought he could repudiate the bill he helped write, advocate a tougher stance on immigration, and use his firm conservatism on every other issue to convince the GOP base that he could still be their champion.
But he still misunderstood where the party was. "The time has come for our generation to lead the way toward a new American Century," he said in the speech announcing his candidacy. "Yesterday is over, and we are never going back."
Then Donald Trump happened, and the problem for Rubio wasn't just Trump himself but what he revealed about the Republican electorate. It turned out that they weren't looking for someone who could sell conservatism to a changing America. Instead, "going back" was precisely what they wanted. Only one candidate told them that he could make America everything it was when they were young, especially that he could get rid of all the immigrants they so despised.
The most emblematic moment of Rubio's fall may have come in an ad, little noticed at the time, that he ran as his fortunes were declining during the primaries. In the ad, Rubio says, "This election is about the essence of America, about all of us who feel out of place in our own country."
This was stunning, because the whole point of Rubio's entire political career had been that he doesn't feel out of place in modern America. But even he resorted to channeling the anxieties and resentments of old white people when it became clear where the nomination battle was being fought.
And of course, he lost. He was supposed to be the Republican version of Barack Obama, but it turned out that wasn't what Republicans wanted at all. And now, his antennae still tuned to the party's base, he tries to be just Trumpian enough to maintain their affection in preparation for his inevitable 2024 presidential run.
But what will Rubio find when he mounts that campaign? Will the party decide that they really do need to find a way to appeal to non-white voters — for real this time? Or will Trump’s white nationalism have become so inextricably woven into what it means to be a Republican that Rubio will find himself in the same position with primary voters as he was in 2016, unable to break through the voters' attraction toward the candidate offering the most direct appeal to their fears and hatreds?
A great deal depends on whether Trump wins re-election in 2020. If he loses, Republican voters may be more open to Rubio’s appeal, the loss of power convincing them that the party has to change if it’s to survive. In the meantime, Rubio will keep trying, however insincerely, to give the GOP base what he thinks it wants. But he can’t change who he is. Rubio was supposed to be the Republican who could sell a changing America on Reagan-style conservatism. But as long as Trump-style conservatism is what the GOP wants to sell, Rubio probably won’t get the chance.
Paul Waldman is an opinion writer for the Plum Line blog. @paulwaldman1