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The Irrelevance of Marco Rubio

He used to be the future of the Republican party. Now he’s desperately hunting for new principles.
February 14, 2020
The Irrelevance of Marco Rubio
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 04: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks to reporters following a closed briefing on intelligence matters on Capitol Hill on December 4, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

Marco Rubio is our great republic’s most overrated senator—which is really saying something, since pretty much everyone in America, left, right, and center, thinks he’s a joke.

He ran for the Senate in 2010 as a pragmatist who could bring the establishment and the Tea Party together. He was supposed to be the future of the Republican party—the principled yet pragmatic, charismatic conservative who appealed to all factions.

But the Floridian didn’t survive the scrutiny of national politics. He turned out to be—as Jeb Bush’s inner circle warned everybody who would listen—an opportunist and a charlatan.

Although Rubio calls himself a conservative, if you look closely at his time in the Senate—with all his flip-flops and failures, his shapeshifting and Trumpification—you’ll see that a more apt description of his politics is the quote attributed to the 19th-century French socialist Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin: There go the people; I must follow them, for I am their leader.

Rubio began his Senate career as an opponent of socialism and an unapologetic warrior for free markets. He had a strong case to make. His parents were refugees from Communist Cuba; it was only natural that he would be a partisan for capitalism.

It seems like ancient history now, but back in 2010—just a decade ago!—the Tea Party, with its blend of free-market libertarianism and constitutional conservatism, was a major force to be reckoned with in the Republican party. Rubio sought out ties to the Tea Party movement and emphasized his strong conservative bona fides. At the same time, though, he maximized his appeal by also branding himself as a pragmatist whose tenure as the speaker of the Florida House of Representatives had taught him the art of compromise without “selling out.” In a three-way race, he was elected to the Senate with 49 percent of the vote.

At the start of his Senate career, Rubio toed the old Reaganite line on foreign policy. As an outspoken foreign-policy hawk, he was every neoconservative’s dream senator. (For example, he supported military measures beyond mere airstrikes in Syria. More on that shortly.)

After Mitt Romney’s loss in the 2012 presidential election, there was immediate speculation that Rubio would be a prime contender for the Republican nomination in 2016. He was young, good-looking, Hispanic, and able to articulate conservative arguments in an intelligent, passionate, winsome way.

He seemed like the future of the party—so much so that he was selected to deliver the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address in February 2013. The televised mini-rebuttal may be the goofiest part of this goofy annual state ritual, but for up-and-coming politicians, it can be a chance to reach a huge audience. (Some 33 million people watched Obama’s address on TV that year.)

What happened next surely reveals more about the frivolousness of American politics than it does about Rubio. It was one of those seemingly innocuous things—an innocent moment, a human moment—that commentators and comedians go crazy for. And it became all that anyone remembered from his speech.

He took a sip from a small water bottle:

Marco Rubio's Water Break: GOP State of the Union Response | SOTU 2013 | The New York Times

Late-night hosts mocked him. So did Saturday Night Live. So did Jon Stewart. (Anybody remember that guy?) A certain real-estate tycoon tweeted about it twice. Political reporters wrote analyses. The New Yorker ran a detailed breakdown. Rubio tried, good-naturedly, to play it off, but the weird moment stuck with him.

It was not the only political disaster that 2013 would bring for Rubio. In early 2013, he was part of the “Gang of Eight,” a group of senators, four from each party, who coauthored a major immigration-reform bill. This seemed like it could be a great moment for Rubio: Here was an up-and-coming legislator acting like a statesman to help broker a compromise on an issue of national importance, and in a way that could help attract much-needed Hispanic voters to the GOP.

But after the Senate passed the bill, the Tea Party condemned it. Rubio, once a darling of the Tea Party, suddenly found himself anathematized by it.

So he flip-flopped. Spectacularly. In maybe a first in history, he actually encouraged the House of Representatives to vote against the bill he had coauthored, cosponsored, and voted for.

It wasn’t the last time Rubio would truckle to the Tea Party in 2013. President Obama wanted to take military action against Syria, but the Tea Party was against just about everything Obama wanted to do—so in late summer 2013, Rubio flip-flopped on his longstanding support for military invention in Syria. The people had spoken, and Rubio must follow them.

Then came that year’s big budget debate. Senate freshman firebrand Ted Cruz started a campaign against voting for any spending bill that involved funding for Obamacare. The supposedly pragmatic Rubio, wanting to keep up with Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee, joined them. What followed was a disastrous government shutdown that made the GOP tremendously unpopular and gained it nothing.

Then, in December of that year, when Paul Ryan had finally helped achieve a compromise budget deal, the Tea Party objected. The allegedly pragmatic Rubio again saluted the base and opposed the budget.

Rubio’s famed pragmatism wasn’t about compromising on policy to run a government. Quite the reverse: It was compromising on principles to keep the base happy and himself relevant.

Was all the calculation, triangulation, and flip-flopping worth it? Rubio’s long-awaited presidential campaign got underway in 2015. He appeared to have been built for the debate stage. He was a made-for-TV candidate—youthful, energetic, charming. As the Jeb Bush team put it, Rubio was “a GOP Obama.”

Until he wasn’t.

Rubio ran in 2015-16 as a generic Reaganite Republican who was for free markets, free trade, social conservatism, and a hawkish foreign policy. Donald Trump, who seemed to be an unserious candidate for the GOP nomination, was none of those, so Rubio hit him several times. Here’s what Rubio had to say in a January 2016 debate in response to Trump’s tariff proposals:

We are all frustrated with what China is doing. I think we need to be very careful with tariffs, and here’s why.

China doesn’t pay the tariff, the buyer pays the tariff. If you send a tie or a shirt made in China into the United States and an American goes to buy it at the store and there’s a tariff on it, it gets passed on in the price to price to the consumer.

Keep Rubio’s vigorous opposition to tariffs in your mind; we’ll come back to it shortly.

As it turned out, 2016 was not a good year for Rubio. His flip-flops came up. Voters didn’t like that he had one of the lowest attendance records in the Senate. But one moment that made him look especially terrible came right before the New Hampshire primary, on which he had put all his chips. For the last GOP debate before New Hampshire, Rubio had rehearsed what seemed like a brilliant line: “Let’s dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing; he knows exactly what he’s doing.” For whatever reason—maybe because the line was so obviously canned, maybe because Rubio said “dispel with” when he meant either “dispel” or “dispense with”—the line didn’t get the applause and attention he had anticipated. So, he tried it out again—two more times! After the third time, Chris Christie ridiculed Rubio for it, utterly puncturing him. What did Rubio do? He said the line a fourth time.

By late February 2016, the Republican candidates still had hope, even as it was becoming clearer that Trump was running away with the nomination. He had won the New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada primaries. So in a February 25 debate, Rubio opted to step up his attacks on Trump. Then, egged on by the favorable reviews he got, an increasingly desperate Rubio went further: He tried to act like Trump by inanely insulting Trump’s appearance, which led a week later to the most crass moment in presidential debate history.

It was too little, too late. Rubio had come out strongly against Trump. He had needed to defeat Trump. His career depended on it: He had promised not to seek reelection for Senate even if he lost the nomination. So at least for a moment, Rubio said what was on many Americans’ minds: Donald Trump can’t be trusted with the nuclear codes. He’s a liar. He’s unfit for the presidency. But Trump took the nomination, while Rubio won primaries only in Minnesota, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C.

Keep Rubio’s case against Trump in your mind; we’ll be coming back to that, too.

What was Rubio’s reaction to losing the Republican nomination in 2016? First, he endorsed the same “liar” and “con artist” who could not be trusted with the nuclear codes. And then—of course—he broke his pledge not to run for re-election.

Rubio’s world changed after 2016. He became a senator with no further political prospects. There are no presidential elections happening anytime soon that he could run for. The base is completely Trumpified. He remains unforgiven for his attacks on Trump, despite apologizing for them, and is resented by the Never Trumpers for becoming Trumpy. Being characteristically a squish, he can be neither a fierce Trump critic like Justin Amash nor a full-on Trump cheerleader like Lindsey Graham. Rubio follows the base, so of course he opposed calling witnesses for the Trump impeachment trial, but no amount of groveling and ingratiating ever seems to bring him closer to Trump’s orbit—at least not yet.

In the meantime, the right is rethinking old orthodoxies. And so is Rubio.

Until very recently, you wouldn’t expect to hear the term “national industrial policy” in an American context. Maybe coming from the mouth of a Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, or Fidel Castro, but not a Republican senator. But the erstwhile anti-socialist Marco Rubio wants an industrial policy for America. And he has been speaking in favor of “common-good capitalism,” which is another term for “managerial economy”—what the democratic-socialists in Europe support: a collectivist economy with central planning. Remember Hayek’s whole “central planning is bad” shtick? Never mind that.

And recall how, in 2016, Rubio had attacked the wisdom of using tariffs for confronting China? By 2019, Trump’s Great Patriotic Trade War was on, and tariffs were polling high with the GOP primary voters. So, when a group of Florida businesses objected to Trump’s tariffs, Rubio went after them:

Does that mean that the anti-tariff Rubio of 2016 wanted to “surrender to China”?

Rubio still craves attention. He tries to stay relevant by airing grievances about 2016 and complaining about “the media”—a recurring theme of his tweets. And he has been opining about the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, sometimes with tweets that are bitter and hypocritical. Here’s one from June 2019:

It is ironic to see Rubio criticizing “the media,” that supposedly monolithic institution, for not questioning the Democratic candidates about their lack of experience—ironic since he ran for president with not much experience himself and endorsed the entirely inexperienced Donald Trump. Oh, and it wasn’t “the media” that questioned Rubio’s lack of experience in 2016; it was his fellow Republicans.

Later in that thread appears what may be Rubio’s bitterest tweet:

Rubio was a failed candidate. He was also once a rising star. It is sad to see how he has proven to be petty, regretful, a dud of a legislator, and a flip-flopper. Lindsey Graham put it best, describing Rubio in 2016: I’m not saying that he would change his positions, but he would change his positions.

Rubio’s instincts for politics are like Napoleon’s instincts at war: He is an operational genius, but he has no long-term strategic foresight. He opts for what is convenient at this very moment, even if it might hurt him in the future. He will take any side of the issue that polls 51 percent with the base.

This isn’t leadership. But it does keep a political career ticking along, devoid of achievement, to gripe another day.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.