Death of a Mannequin: Marco Rubio's Last Day

Rubio wanted voters to give him the most important job in the world because he didn't feel like doing his current one

Death of a Mannequin: Marco Rubio's Last Day

On the evening of Tuesday the 15th, when even Marco Rubio must have finally understood that his campaign was over, the 5,000 seats of the Florida International University Arena sat empty as his supporters were herded into a narrow rectangle in the lobby. It was staging for the last time, the crowd — like the ones promised for months — vapor even at the end. 

The signs out in Sunrise, Florida, declared THIS IS RUBIO COUNTRY, and for once they were right. They'd said that in Nevada, where Donald Trump beat Rubio by 22 points, and they'd said that in South Carolina, where Trump beat him by 10. But out here, past West Miami, and its over 60 percent Cuban population, was Rubio's center of gravity, and, at the end of the day, it was the only place in the state that would have him.

By the time the event started at FIU there were no lines. The Secret Service whisked people through, and for a while journalists outnumbered attendees. Donor types recognized each other, shook hands and leaned in for unsmiling conversation — their voices eventually rising only to compete with the music and talking heads shooting stand-ups. 

The crowd was almost as bad as six days before, when someone either forgot to cancel an event at a Hialeah football stadium or else couldn't get the deposit back. Rubio's people made the mistake of shaping the crowd into a terminal metaphor by corralling them in an end zone, but the empty stands gave the game away. Even with the official cameras tight in on the people there, they couldn't stop others from taking a snapshot of the surrounding emptiness.

Eventually the supporters-to-journalists ratio stabilized at 1:1, as Rubio's handlers packed people closer to the stage. For a free event on a college campus, only a few kids trickled in to shift the demographics in Rubio's favor, but just before the polls closed at 8:00, 25 more journalists frogmarched in and blew the numbers at the last second. A woman walked patiently after her toddling daughter, who excitedly half-ran out a set of doors, unaware she was attending a funeral.

Twelve people before the stage waved signs. A "Marco! Marco! Marco!" chant went up for exactly one minute. There were whispers in the crowd. Nineteen points. Trump had taken every county in the state but Miami-Dade, the one we were in. An attempt at booing stopped almost as it started, perhaps out of embarrassment.

A few minutes later, an announcer who might have been thrown in a van and driven over from a motor speedway boomed, "Lllllllaaaaaadiesssss and gentlemennnnn, please welcome Senator Maaaaaarrrrrrrco Rrrrrrrrrruuuuuubiiiiiioooooo," and no engines started.

The Rubio campaign died quietly — in a small room of true believers, vastly outnumbered by the rest of the citizenry — smothered by all the space between expectations and reality, as Marco Rubio exhorted his fellow Republicans with aspirational, warmed-over bullshit that no one, especially now, had much use for.

Better things were supposed to be in store for Marco Rubio. The people paid to tell you that couldn't stop telling you.

He was young and good-looking and told inspiring stories that made the hairs stand on the backs of the necks of people who can be inspired by American conservatism. He stood a generation apart from Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and he could deliver a new way forward, for the American people. He was the one candidate that the Beltway chattering classes knew the Democratic establishment most feared, and some Democrats agreed with them. He could make his voice warble when saying "America" emphatically.

Understanding the stupidity of this reasoning isn't difficult. If Washington narrative meant anything, we'd be entering year eight of the Rudy Giuliani/Fred Thompson administration. If looks and charm and stirring speeches determined elections, Democratic nominee Martin O'Malley — a soft-voiced, sweetly accented governor with a gift for taut but idealistic oratory and looking ridiculously fit either shirtless or with an acoustic guitar — would be waiting for Rubio to finish crushing Ted Cruz, a man whose face looks like it was assembled from the spare parts of factory-reject heads.

And of course, Donald Trump would never have entered the race, because he was just flirting with running to sell books or steaks or mattresses. He would have been scared off by financial disclosure requirements. And even if he'd gotten that far, the American people would have rejected a pathologically dishonest, gauche braggart indistinguishable from what happens when a Doug Exeter wig grafts onto a hunk of Velveeta that's been left too close to the radiator.

But you didn't need to look at the rest of the field to know that the pundits' Marco Narrative was just as absurdly committed to seeming inevitable and as tautly and plausibly plotted as a Star Wars prequel. You could've just asked the sort of person who knew and loathed him best: a Floridian.

The fatal streak running through the Rubio narrative was the same one that runs through so many conservative candidates. For someone bound by blood to the cult of the self-made entrepreneur as the only non-cop/soldier of any value as a citizen, Rubio merely spent two awkward belches in the private sector amid a career built on taxpayer dollars, donor largesse and patronage. He was a career politician and glad-hander calling out government cronyism with a sense of self-awareness so broken that he couldn't weather the barest standards of his own ideology.

Rubio started making his political connections in 1991, volunteering on campaigns for Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart (who subsequently wrote him law school recommendations) and later on Bob Dole's 1996 campaign. A little over a year out of law school, he was running for West Miami Commissioner, where he settled into the job for a full year before running for the Florida House.

From there, it was on to Speaker of the House, an honor reserved for only those special hacks with either career extortion on hand or a fresh face and the illusion of upward momentum. After leaving the House via term limitations, Rubio struggled for two years with a $300,000 salary at a law firm that definitely unironically hired him for his skill as a jurist, as well as an unadvertised job teaching at FIU that was funded through private donations, including $100,000 from billionaire Norman Braman, who kept him as a pet.

You can start unspooling the Rubio finances there, since Braman supported him repeatedly throughout his career and was rewarded in Tallahassee for his generosity. Braman's largesse grew to include Rubio's wife, who drew a $54,000 salary at one of Braman's charities in 2013, where she held meetings, often with people. That same year, the charity made hundreds of stock trades, racked up $150,000 worth of air travel fees and donated a whopping $250.

But the Rubios understand family value in a pretty literal way. Take a New York Times article that was mocked at the time by Jon Stewart, despite its mostly containing details previously reported by other outlets. Rubio's wife ran one of his PACs, which paid the family for gas, food and long-distance phone calls. Another PAC employed three other family members. Later, yet another PAC employed his friends and nephews. 

Rubio also spent thousands of dollars on state GOP credit cards — including landscaping, a five-figure trip to an out-of-state family reunion, hundred-dollar trips to the barber and clothes shopping in New York. Amid all his lectures about how government spending must be curtailed and other Americans need to be more fiscally responsible, his personal finances have been such a continually spendthrift shambles that a house he owned in Tallahassee nearly went into foreclosure. The two biggest reasons he's not currently in debt are massive advances for ghostwritten campaign books that publishers know PACs and friendly think tanks will bulk-buy and give away in exchange for donations.

Those revelations didn't hurt Rubio in the past. The Rubio campaign liked to chalk that up to destiny, and he invoked that theme even as he was dying on his feet last weekend talking to the elderly at The Villages. His 2010 defeat of Charlie Crist, despite the Crist campaign hammering him on his finances, shall forever represent the cherry on the Inevitable Rubio sundae. Just forget the context.

Forget that Rubio wasn't running against merely Crist but also a black Democrat in a three-way race. Forget that Crist had been enormously popular, but was also a Southern governor who was caught on camera hugging Barack Obama in the same year conservatives discovered that he's Black Hitler. Forget, too, that 2010 was the Tea Party wave election, and that Rubio tacked to the right of Crist, a social-issues centrist. And forget that the Florida GOP was already ridiculously corrupt and racked by two years of the Jim Greer scandal, which made accusations of funny finances sound like the new normal. Lastly, forget that, in the same year Rubio beat all the odds, Floridians elected as governor a man whose company had set the record for the largest fine for Medicare and Medicaid fraud in history.

What the Rubio campaign needed everyone to forget was that — to anyone who doesn't live off political news, to anyone not inured to the blocked toilet that is Florida politics — Marco Rubio sounded like either a moron or a crook.

All that might have been enough to overlook if there had been any ideas behind Rubiomentum. But Rubio was a Reagan Republican in the same way that all other Republicans are Reagan Republicans: 95 percent of what he believes hasn't been updated since 1981. As to the remaining five percent, any time something new came out of his mouth, half the journalists covering him wanted to run around to the side of the stage to catch a glimpse of the puppeteer from the Heritage Foundation with an arm shoulder-deep up his ass.

Even the rare new ideas were insanely atavistic. Only Rubio could write an atrocious book with the word "innovate" on practically every page and decide to solve the college debt crisis with ideas fresh from the Renaissance. Why not, he argued, pair students of promise with an investor class who would pay for their academic apprenticeships in exchange for a fixed period of work after graduation? Sounds great! Rubio was into EDM: Maybe you could become the court DJ for the Archbishop of Salzburg or Emperor Joseph. Just don't play too many beats. There are only so many beats the royal ear can hear.

The biggest joke of the Rubio campaign was its slogan, "A New American Century," which is a hilarious reboot concept 15 years into a century. But the slogan also echoed the Project for the New American Century, the Bill Kristol think tank whose gameplan for the Middle East led us into Iraq and the flowering peace and political pluralism we see across the region today. Rubio didn't disappoint. Between his book and his saber-rattling on the trail, America was poised to drop bombs on — or start firing from warships at — the South China Sea, Ukraine, Iran, Syria and whatever country he thinks ISIS is.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama was trying to destroy America with $17 trillion in debt. Rubio promised a tax plan that would add $8.2 trillion to it, because if $17 trillion is a mortal threat, then $25.2 trillion is a fucking clambake. Abortion? Forget it, go to hell, ladies, not even in cases of rape. Obamacare? Repeal and replace. Devolve everything to the states. Fix poverty by having people get married

On climate change, the noted astronomer from parts of Florida that will be underwater during the New American Century observed that "America is not a planet." Nice one. This is the "What can I do!" theory of intervention that says, "If you come upon someone trying to kill another person, and nobody else in the crowd is intervening, just hang back and see what happens." Besides, alternate energy plans would only increase Americans' energy costs, because there's no bargain like moving Americans from disappearing coastal cities and fighting the global destabilization of hundreds of millions of refugees.

The intellectual engine of the Rubio campaign was something that could have come out of any Tenth Amendment-humping geriatric on Capitol Hill. All Marco would have had to do was open his mouth and leave it there while a 40-year-old tape loop played, periodically interrupted by a new overdub saying the word "Uber."

And what about Rubio's campaign? Eschewing centuries of hidebound political thinking, the campaign studiously avoided the same thing that drove Rubio away from the private sector in the first place: work.

Over the course of his career, Rubio was slapped with the well-deserved label of someone not especially interested in his current job except as a vehicle for applying for the next one in between meeting rich people. He almost immediately ditched the West Miami Commission for the Florida House, then displayed a chronic absenteeism while there. This is not necessarily a liability in the party that rejects almost all government functionality as tyranny, and it was no obstacle to entering the U.S. Senate, where his work allergy metastasized into outright contempt for the concept. By October, 2015, one of Rubio's core arguments for his candidacy was give me the most important job in the world because I don't feel like doing my current one.

At the same time, Rubio didn't seem to much feel like campaigning either. His trips to Iowa were rare, and he had very little ground game there or in New Hampshire. Focused on winning the "money primary," which put him in position to spend time with rich people, Rubio didn't bother with the grubby work of meeting voters and convincing them that they liked him. 

Rubio even forgot one of the lessons that hurt Charlie Crist in 2010: He didn't maintain retail politics and face time in his own state. Five days before the Florida primary, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn told Bloomberg, "I am the mayor of the third-largest city in this state. I have never met Marco Rubio. He has never taken the time, either in Washington, D.C. or in Tampa."

That didn't come out if you read the national Rubio narrative, which said that he was poised to break out at any second, probably on the basis of the debate he won, or the other one, or the other one. Rubio won debates the same way Hillary Clinton does — by having it be too headachy for analysts to assume a different outcome was possible. The fact that outlets like Politico either got their debate evaluations from party insiders or simply wrote from their mindset didn't help: If you ask a dog if an ass smells great, it's going to say yeah.

As with everything else during this election, the usual metrics didn't work. Poise and concision in debate answers counted for fuck-all, due in no little part to the fact that they were pre-written to guarantee or state as much. The fact that Rubio was a political Ken doll that could repeat the same phrases every time Hugh Hewitt jerked his cord at best negatively distinguished him from Trump. Chris Christie's battering Rubio into a stuttering, repetitive wreck finally exposed something Florida voters beset by his speeches for decades could have told anyone: that he couldn't reliably express anything he hadn't memorized.

Even focusing on his flip-flops on immigration misses the point. Cruz and Rubio attacked each other on their previous flirtations with amnesty because there was hardly an inch of space between them, and Donald Trump's history of hiring practices reveal a decades-long hypocrisy. What mattered wasn't the record but the rage. 

No conservative was likely to win much of anything among Latino voters — Rubio was no different — but at least Trump cannily recognized that it was time to dispense with the allusive tone, quasi-legalese and established pieties of the conservative discourse. What voters abandoned by party bromides just as they lost the bulk of their equity in America in 2008 and what those scared by the rise of Obama shared was a desire to see someone to take up Colonel Kurtz's grease pencil and scrawl EXTERMINATE THE BRUTES across the flag.

Marco Rubio couldn't do that, because nobody at the American Enterprise Institute had written that script dozens of times in synonymous policy papers over several decades. Ironically, the one idea the prophet of a New American Century could neither understand nor express was one that sounded new to anyone under 40. The only lines he had left were ones everyone in the audience at home could already guess. He could scare the shit out of you about ISIS, or he could scare the shit out of you about the American Dream.

Those were the two settings on Marco. An existential threat that needed to be met with death, or an existential threat that needed to be met with the profundity of his tears. Marco Rubio could weep at you for months on end about the promise of America that he grew up with, and he could weep at you for months on end about restoring the promise of America that he saw falling away. In our moment of direst crisis, he would not be afraid to gaze across the expanse of America and feel things. Feel them hard. Observably.

Rubio spent the last two weeks of his campaign apologizing for betraying his principles and the dignity of his office by mocking Donald Trump's hair and dick. He claimed that he could no longer abide the unfair, classless street fight that Trump had reduced the discourse to, and merely got carried away. But it was bullshit. He was trying to shore up falling numbers. He'd never have apologized if it had worked.

His announcement that his campaign was over could not have been more fitting for what his campaign represented: A passionate delivery of an old idea everyone had already memorized, delivered instead as news. A few people listening had red eyes, as some internal mechanism in Rubio yanked down a lever to the Emotionally Uplifting Twaddle setting.

"I ask the American people: Do not give in to the fear. Do not give in to the frustration," he said. "We can disagree about public policy, we can disagree about it vibrantly, passionately. But we are a hopeful people, and we have every right to be hopeful."

It was a valediction of bullshit, as inexorable and damned as the rising Florida tide.

It was Rubio's campaign, after all, that announced, "Nothing matters if we aren't safe," that inflated a potential single Iranian nuclear weapon into an existential threat to the whole United States, that portrayed the border as a sieve through which ISIS would infiltrate potentially thousands of terrorists, that implied we'd restart the Guantanamo torture machine, that said we'd nearly conceded the rest of the century to China, that proclaimed the next generation nearly certain to be immiserated compared to their parents and described the president as alternately a mortally dangerous incompetent and a godless Machiavel who spent the last seven years fundamentally transforming the nation into an unrecognizable dystopia.

It was a masterpiece of bullshit, combining the Rubio experience's two true and constant outcomes: a text any follower could have reasonably assembled from the greatest hits, and one whose philosophical aspirations were invalidated by the person voicing them. Rubio's rhetoric never tried to soar higher than when it was being undermined by everything else he campaigned on.

It was the last weepy gesture of a bozo charlatan, and it sent most of the audience away unaffected. When he finished, people moved as if to exit and found themselves suddenly stopped by a room so full of journalists that everyone had their own personal interviewer. 

On Thursday, Rubio told reporters that he is "not running for anything" and is going to "be a private citizen." And that, too, is almost certainly bullshit.