f there was a moment during the early primary season when you could almost feel the self-delusion infecting the Republican establishment, it was on the night of the South Carolina primary, when an utterly deflated Jeb Bush, onetime shoo-in for the nomination, suspended his campaign, and Marco Rubio, the supposed “last best hope” of the GOP, declared a sort of victory without actually winning. The Florida senator had come in second, barely, eking out a win over Ted Cruz by two-tenths of a point – though, as it would be argued incessantly, this was a score, given that Rubio came in fifth in New Hampshire and had almost been left for dead.
Some 400 South Carolinians had shown up for Rubio’s election-night watch party, which was held in a cavernous event space in Columbia. A series of huge, looming TV screens broadcast Fox News. It was absolutely clear, and had been clear within an hour of the polls closing, that Donald Trump had not only won the state, but had won by a small landslide, just as he’d done in New Hampshire, and would later do in Nevada, Alabama, Georgia and even in Rubio’s home state of Florida, as he marched ever closer to the nomination. The Fox commentators treated Trump’s 10-point lead as data from some parallel universe. “I don’t think it’s in any way a foregone conclusion,” opined Charles Krauthammer, a Fox regular who has effusively spoken of Rubio as “Kennedyesque” (and who Trump has called a loser). Krauthammer pondered what the race might look like were Ben Carson and John Kasich, like Bush, to quit. There was no indication of this happening then, but whittling down what was once a 17-candidate field to a two- or three-way contest had been a fantasy of the GOP cognoscenti for months. “Look, Trump got 31 percent of the vote,” said Krauthammer, though actually, Trump got 33 percent. “In a three-way race, that’s a dead heat!”
Strains of nondescript country-rock music swelled the room – the campaign recently gave up playing Axwell and Ingrosso’s “Something New” after getting a cease-and-desist letter from one of the Swedish DJs – as Rubio strode triumphantly onstage, followed by his wife, Jeanette, and four children. Rubio has one of the most perfect-looking families in national politics. He also looks as if he could be running for president of the Young Republicans, with a smooth, unworried face, full head of dark-brown, perfectly parted hair, and an easy, seemingly genuine million-watt smile. “When I look at Marco Rubio, I think of one of those dressed-up little-boy figurines spinning around on a birthday cake,” says the writer T.D. Allman, author of Finding Florida: The True Story of the Sunshine State, who also sees Rubio as an equivalent of the Florida housing bubble.
This was Rubio’s second nonvictory moment: In Iowa, Rubio had finished third, yet it was in some ways declared a win, since he “overperformed expectations,” as The Washington Post put it. A slew of media outlets concurred: Rubio was clearly the GOP candidate with the broadest appeal. New Hampshire had been a disaster, of course, but then Rubio rebounded – “Marcomentum!” Here at the podium beside him stood his three local surrogates, Rep. Trey Gowdy, who is white; Sen. Tim Scott, South Carolina’s first African-American senator; and the state’s popular Indian-American governor, Nikki Haley, one of the GOP’s rising stars. Over the past two days, the three had barnstormed across the state with Rubio, providing a feel-good image of an inclusive GOP that, having been carefully stage-managed to project just this narrative, was duly captured on every video and cellphone camera. “This new group of conservatives taking over America looks like a Benetton commercial,” Haley said.
In fact, the GOP is as white as it’s ever been. America’s changing demographics (by 2050, the U.S. will be a “majority minority” country, with Hispanics alone making up 29 percent of the population) have benefited Democrats, who have become stronger as the voter base has become younger and more diverse. More than 80 percent of the country’s minorities, and almost two-thirds of millennial voters, went for Obama in both 2008 and 2012.
Republicans, despite their wins on the state and local levels, have lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. After Mitt Romney lost to Obama in 2012 – an election in which Romney declared “corporations are people” and posited that the undocumented would “self-deport” – the GOP leadership conducted a postmortem. Its wholly unsurprising conclusions: Latinos, only 27 percent of whom had voted for Romney, felt the party didn’t want them. Younger voters, who were more progressive on social issues, felt the party was out of touch on issues like gay marriage. Additionally, the middle class continued to feel shut out of the country’s economic recovery, and believed the GOP didn’t understand their concerns. A “major deficiency,” according to a report issued early in 2013 by the Republican National Committee, was “the perception that the GOP does not care about people.”
Republicans needed to rebrand, and Rubio, the telegenic and rhetorically gifted junior senator from Florida, seemed the ideal candidate through which to do it. The son of Cuban-American immigrants, he’d come to Washington on the steam of the Tea Party, but forged immediate ties with the neocon establishment, making him one of the few mainstream conservatives in touch with the base. He was bilingual and also seemed to speak the language of youth: Rubio, who referred to himself as “the only member of the hip-hop caucus in the Senate,” once quoted Wiz Khalifa, The Godfather and Jay Z in a single filibuster. Best of all, he was a genuine first-generation success story, the kind of candidate who might, they hoped, do for Republicans what Obama had done for the Democrats. Rubio had barely arrived in Washington before he was tapped as a possible vice-presidential contender in 2012, and, though losing out to Paul Ryan, he won the coveted keynote slot at the Republican National Convention – and was also selected to give the official GOP response to the 2013 State of the Union speech (which he delivered in English and Spanish). In 2013, Time put him on the cover, declaring him the “Republican savior.” Two years later, the Daily Beast declared: “GOP JFK? Rubio 2016 Is Real and It’s Spectacular.”
What was also real was that Rubio had risen spectacularly fast, and with almost no real legislative achievements. In fact, during the past year, he had the worst attendance record in the Senate, a point that Trump, among other candidates, would goad Rubio on throughout his presidential campaign. Rubio’s absolutist positions on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion also put him at odds with many young people – Rubio opposes abortion, even in cases of rape and incest – and his wavering on immigration reform, which he opposed in his 2010 Senate run, embraced in 2013, and then backed away after conservatives lambasted him for “betrayal,” has made him a question mark with many Hispanic voters.
If some saw him as the most inspiring Republican figure since Ronald Reagan – “Marco is the only one who can take the GOP to a place it hasn’t been since the 1980s,” Tallahassee lobbyist Brian Ballard told me when Rubio was still a contender – others have always looked at him as, at best, Obama-lite. “You see him speak with his quivering, practiced voice that is hardly authentic – I find him to be about as hollow a politician as I’ve met,” says Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a Washington-based immigration-reform group, who cites Rubio’s flip-flop on immigration as one example of his moral vacuity.
Still, in any other year, Rubio might have gotten away with it. But in this bizarre election season, in which a billionaire not-all-that-conservative demagogue has been embraced by Republican voters as, bafflingly, a tell-it-like-it-is populist, Rubio came across as exactly what he is: a malleable, transactional and utterly manufactured candidate, bolstered by the elites. “Poor Marco, he’s the failed savior,” says Miami Democrat Joe Garcia, who has known Rubio since he served in the Florida House. “He was going to lead the Republicans out of the political wilderness, like Moses. He looked good, he sounded good, and he takes them into the desert and…they go, ‘Fuck you! We’re voting for Donald Trump.'”
Every great political narrative requires a degree of complicity. In 1998, long before anyone in Washington had heard of him, when he was still living at home with his parents in middle-class West Miami, 26-year-old Marco Rubio approached a local power broker named Rebecca Sosa and told her he wanted to run for the local city commission. Sosa was dubious. “I couldn’t believe how young he looked,” she would later tell The Washington Post‘s Manuel Roig-Franzia, author of the 2012 unauthorized biography The Rise of Marco Rubio. But Rubio had spark, Sosa thought, and she was “blown away” by the stories he told about his Cuban grandfather, who first inspired his interest in politics with his lengthy odes to Ronald Reagan. Rubio was handsome, charismatic and endearing. The more he spoke, the more Sosa concluded she was looking at a star.
From this moment onward, Rubio, not unlike Obama, became the beneficiary of the fervent desire, and patronage, of those eager to see him as a transformative figure, the embodiment of the American Dream. It is an image he milked for all it’s worth. “This is not just a country I was born in. America is the country that changed, literally, the history of my family,” Rubio said to crowds along the trail before launching into the story of his parents, “a bartender and a maid from Cuba,” who came to America in 1956 and built a life that, after years of hard work and sacrifice, enabled their youngest son to realize his dream and run for president. “That’s not just my story. That’s our story as a people,” he told audiences, sometimes putting his hand to his heart and leaning in, as if to touch the soul of every person. “And I know that,” he added, “because we are all just a generation or two removed from someone who made our future the purpose of their lives.”
It’s a powerful line, even if you’ve heard it a few times, and, like any good foundational story, it has a mythic quality. The sameness of Rubio’s speeches was a subject of ridicule during the campaign, particularly by Chris Christie, who derided Rubio’s cannedsounding lines as emblematic of his “boy in the bubble” aspect. Miami attorney J.C. Planas, who served with Rubio in the Florida legislature, chuckled when Christie accused Rubio of making the same speech for eight years: “I was like, ‘Eight? Buddy, pull the tapes from Florida!'” Planas says that he and some of his colleagues used to joke that Rubio woke up in the morning to practice his spiel in the mirror. “The other joke we had was there was only one book on his bookshelf, and it’s entitled, Are You Sure You’re Not Jesus Christ?“
Beyond the American Dream narrative, Rubio’s actual story is a far more standard tale of a hungry young politician who, blessed with native political intelligence, a capacity for impressing his elders and the uncanny ability to be in exactly the right place at the right time, maneuvered his way up the political ladder, so consumed with ambition that he barely seemed to notice those he left behind. “I don’t think it’s an accident that most Florida elected officials were with Jeb Bush and not Marco Rubio,” says Jorge Arrizurieta, a close friend and longtime associate of the former Florida governor. It’s a sentiment I hear frequently, interviewing associates and former colleagues of Rubio’s in Florida and in Washington. “I come from the school where loyalty matters, and his lack of loyalty is a very consistent trait,” says Arrizurieta. “He doesn’t need anybody else, because he’s Marco.”
Miami, where Rubio’s story began, and where his presidential run ended, is now a majority Latin American city, but it wasn’t always that way. During Rubio’s youth, in the 1980s, Miami-Dade was still a majority-white, heavily Democratic county. Jeb Bush, who’d married a Latina and was then the local head of the GOP, began to reach out to young, charismatic Cuban political hopefuls and encouraged them to run as Republicans. Rubio, who met Bush in 1997, impressed the soon-to-be governor, eventually becoming one of Bush’s lieutenants in the Florida legislature. Rubio was 28 when he ran for state office, “but he looked about 18,” says Sergio Bendixen, a Miami pollster who advised Rubio in his 1999 campaign. Rubio struck him as earnest and sincere. “He told me his hero was Bobby Kennedy, which I thought was interesting for a Republican,” says Bendixen, a Democrat. (In his book An American Son, Rubio never mentions Robert F. Kennedy, but does write glowingly of Ronald Reagan, whose election in 1980, he says, was one of the “defining influences” in his young political life.) Rubio won the seat, and sometime later he and Bendixen had lunch. “He told me about all the seminars he’d been going to in Washington run by the Heritage Foundation and other right-wing groups,” Bendixen recalls. “It was a complete ideological switch.”
But ideology, as Rubio would prove time and again, mattered far less than expedience. “Usually with politicians, their interests drive the direction in which they go,” says Democratic strategist Jose Parra. “In Rubio’s case, it always seemed like the direction he wanted to go drove his interests.” Already tapped as a rising star, Rubio arrived in Tallahassee and immediately began to angle his way around the Statehouse, making friends and giving speeches, but, as many colleagues recall, rarely doing any legislative work.
Despite Rubio’s thin legislative résumé (he reportedly fought unsuccessfully to get a government subsidy for a new ballfield for the Florida Marlins), he impressed powerful Republicans, notably Jeb Bush, who had presided over Tallahassee as “King Jeb” during his eight years as governor. Several years later, Bush, who introduced Rubio to many of his top donors, would serve as both a sounding board and a source of moral support when Rubio decided to challenge then-governor Charlie Crist in the Republican primary for Senate. “Let’s just say he made numerous visits,” says Bush friend Arrizurieta, recalling how Bush encouraged Rubio to keep running, even when he was 30 points down in the polls. “We felt that [senator] was a great role for Marco, and we also thought it was a job he’d be in for a while,” Arrizurieta says. “By no means did [we think] he was going to use it as a steppingstone to run for president, and if he had been honest with us, we would have said, ‘Absolutely not.'”
Rubio’s career was predicated on his innate understanding of the political and social zeitgeist – though in 2016, this intuition would fail him. In 2006, leading up to his final two years in the Statehouse, Rubio produced a book, 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida’s Future, which set the legislative agenda for his tenure as speaker of the Florida House. Only a portion of Rubio’s 100 ideas were actually enacted, but what the book did do was “set the agenda for Rubio’s selfbranding,” as the Tampa Bay Times wrote in 2010. Among the most prominent, ultimately failed ideas was a plan to eliminate property taxes on primary homes, which established Rubio as an anti-government, anti-tax crusader: the perfect candidate for the nascent Tea Party.
GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who’d first met Rubio when he was gathering “ideas” for his book, helped Rubio shape his message. “Rubio was the first Tea Party candidate, and he’s the same man now as he was then,” he says. “I think a great question is, how did Rubio start his D.C. career as the first Tea Party senator and wind up being the establishment choice?”
The answer is, Rubio has always been an establishment choice. Since his Senate run, his truest base has been the broad network of mostly white Republican elites operating behind the scenes. In late 2015, it was reported that Rubio’s campaign had benefited from more “dark money” donations than any other presidential candidate. In his Senate bid, Rubio claimed to have run a grassroots campaign, raising $7 million in small donations from ordinary citizens – “I’ve always told people they buy into our agenda, we don’t buy into theirs,” he said – although it made up only 36 percent of the $19.7 million raised during his campaign. Top donors included Karl Rove’s American Crossroads PAC and the conservative activist group Club for Growth, as well as the hedge fund run by Rubio’s most influential backer, billionaire Paul Singer. In an illustration of the split between the GOP base and its donor class, Singer was also a major funder of the movement for gay marriage.
The Tea Party, as it became increasingly apparent, had simply been a vehicle for Rubio, whose signature modus operandi, dating back to his earliest days in politics, has been to turn his back on those who’ve helped him rise – something that would come back to haunt him in the presidential campaign. Rubio had come to the Senate with the support of one of the right’s biggest and most divisive power brokers, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, now head of the Heritage Foundation, who’d helped engineer Rubio’s success as a Tea Party candidate. Now Rubio began to distance himself from more-aggressive “outsider” freshman senators like Rand Paul, and later Ted Cruz, who turned anti-government obstructionism into his personal crusade. “If you notice, Rubio didn’t join the Tea Party caucus, even though that’s how he got elected,” says Alan Becker, the managing partner of the Miami law firm Becker and Poliakoff, where Rubio worked starting in 2003.
Rubio seemed like a neocon, but nobody really knows, says Elise Jordan, a foreign-policy adviser to Sen. Paul’s campaign. “I mean, was he really? Or is this what he decided would be more politically advantageous at the time?”
Turning away from DeMint, Rubio allied himself instead with Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, two of the most entrenched “moderate” Republicans, who tried to show Rubio the ropes in Washington, steering him toward the powerful Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, traditional springboards for presidential hopefuls. Rubio hungrily leapt at the opportunities afforded him. “He was a hot commodity,” says a Senate Republican staffer. “There was nationwide buzz about him, but the guy did not assume that because he was famous he knew everything. He kept his head down and worked.”
Yet if Rubio did have a blind spot, it was on the one issue he’d connected with all his life, and that, ironically, would also be a part of the undoing of his presidential ambitions: immigration. There are two ways to look at Rubio’s involvement in the 2013 debate on immigration reform: It was clearly an issue that, because of Rubio’s popularity with both the Tea Party conservatives and Hispanics, could give him a platform, but it was also the kind of all-in risk that went against Rubio’s basic political character. It required him to take an actual stand.
Rubio’s history on immigration had so far been, like much of the rest of him, a study in contradiction. While careful to never openly seem pro-immigration, he had been immigration advocates’ quiet ally in the Florida House. During his Senate run, however, Rubio tacked far to the right, defending Arizona’s draconian immigration law, only to backpedal several weeks later. He at times seemed pro-amnesty, then against it. Still, veteran Republicans like McCain and Graham, who are moderates on immigration, backed a comprehensive-reform agenda and saw Rubio as a potential ally. And in 2013, in what would later be cast as his central betrayal of Tea Party principles, Rubio agreed to join the bipartisan effort, which included Democrats Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez and became known as the Gang of Eight.
Rubio’s handling of the Gang of Eight negotiations might offer a window into his executive style. “He was the guy who would show up late, leave early and leave the dirty work to his staff,” recalls one aide who worked behind the scenes on the bill. “You’d have a situation where all the members would be in the room and a couple of senators would be arguing, and then Rubio’s staffer would be arguing, while Rubio would be sitting back with a Cheshire-cat grin on his face, watching.”
To the shock of many people who were involved with the bill, Rubio outsourced the bulk of the negotiations to a close friend and hired gun, Miami attorney Enrique Gonzalez. While hiring experts is far from unusual, Gonzalez is an attorney at one of the most prominent corporate immigration law firms in the country, and Rubio made him the head of his team. “Enrique’s role was to make sure the business community loved this bill and knew who it was who took care of them,” says the aide. “From a political standpoint, that was a smart play. But it was also incredibly irresponsible, a case study in the donor class controlling our politics. And what it says about what kind of president Rubio would be is quite frightening.” This is why Trump’s attacks on Rubio have resonated – “He’s right,” the staffer continues. “The establishment looks at him and says, ‘He’ll play ball.’ And the immigration bill is evidence of that.”
But few saw this aspect of Rubio’s work. Instead, he almost immediately became the face of immigration reform, upstaging established reform advocates in his party like Graham and McCain, who several people say resented the young senator’s star power. On the other hand, “everyone knew they needed Rubio because he was their connection to the Tea Party,” says the aide. “If he walked away, it would have killed the bill.”
But Rubio was careful to hedge, even as he went out selling the bill to Rush Limbaugh and others in the conservative media. “Rubio would go on these shows and say things that were inaccurate,” says the aide. According to some staffers, McCain would blow up at this – in one argument, an aide recalls other Republicans complaining that Rubio “spoke another language” than what he spoke to them. Later, at a press conference, Rubio tried to make a joke about it. “He was like, ‘I changed my mind!’ – there was almost something Hamlet-like about it all.”
Unsurprisingly, the conservatives weren’t convinced – later, in one epic putdown, Ann Coulter called the freshman senator “Chuck Schumer’s press secretary.” Rubio, seeing his support among conservatives slipping, backed away from the bill, and though it passed in the Senate, it was never even brought to the House. Immigration-reform advocates were crushed. “I have a special cold, dark place in my heart for Marco Rubio,” says Sharry of America’s Voice. “This guy threw immigration under the bus. Instead of pushing Republicans to embrace it, he enables them to block it. I’ve been around politicians for 30 years, and I know they have to lean and pander, but to see him argue for immigration reform in June 2013, and then argue with equal conviction against it a few months later, that is really disturbing.”
And yet to those who knew him, it was also classic Rubio. “I think if you talked to Lindsey Graham,” says Arrizurieta, “and he talked to you honestly, he’d say, ‘McCain and I took him under our wing, made sure he got the right committee assignment, and when he didn’t need us anymore, he cut and ran.'” Rubio didn’t even appear at the press conference with the other lawmakers celebrating the bill passing the Senate.
“This is someone who, when challenged, did the easy thing: duck out to make sure nothing splashed on him. You can’t do that as president. As president,” Arrizurieta adds, “everything splashes on you.”
The chaos of the early months leading up to Iowa and New Hampshire landed D.C.’s Republican policy elite in a morass unlike they’d ever experienced. The big names in foreign policy – Michael Hayden, Paul Wolfowitz, George Shultz – had backed Jeb Bush, the presumptive nominee. Now they and many others looked on, shell-shocked by the unexpected collapse of Bush’s campaign, with the possibility of being out of a job. “If you’re part of the class of foreign-policy experts in D.C. who look at each four years as a prospect of being part of a new administration and new foreign-policy team, where do you go?” says a Washington think-tank expert. “They were hopeful Rubio could salvage what looked lost for Jeb. And they were horrified by Cruz and Trump.”
Trump, in particular, was terrifying. Who was advising him? Was anyone? Because that was, ultimately, the point. “There’s a huge infrastructure of consultants, strategists, policy advisers, pollsters, direct-mail people…and normally they’d be looking forward to a huge payday when their candidate wins,” says Bruce Bartlett, a Republican consultant and veteran of the Reagan White House. “This has nothing to do with issues – it’s about power. Trump hasn’t hired any of those people. He can’t be controlled. That scares the shit out of them!”
Rubio may have lacked experience, but he was manageable. “I think even people who liked him realized he was thin,” one D.C. source tells me. Though far less substantial than Jeb Bush, he was “potentially sexy and electable,” says a progressive foreign-policy analyst. At least Republicans could imagine how he’d staff the White House. “He’s like the second reinstatement of a Bush administration: neocons and pro-democracy Republicans who want to spend a lot on defense and poke Cuba in the eye,” says the analyst. “He’s the best hope of the GOP establishment from the foreign-policy perspective.” Rubio also had the support of the Beltway media and Wall Street, though no one could match Jeb Bush’s astounding $118 million “Right to Rise” Super PAC. But Rubio’s federal endorsements, while more numerous than any other GOP candidate’s, weren’t huge. Graham, who backed Bush after his own presidential run flamed out, all but vetoed a Rubio endorsement. “Ted Cruz is not my favorite by any means,” Graham noted after Super Tuesday. “But we may be in a position where we have to rally around Ted Cruz as the only way to stop Donald Trump.” Graham, who recently said his party had gone “bat-shit crazy,” is now fundraising for Cruz.
What Rubio really lacked, of course, was the support of the Republican base. Blame his “perfidy” on immigration reform. Blame his absenteeism. Blame New Hampshire.
The sight of Chris Christie eviscerating Rubio during the eighth GOP debate, in New Hampshire, where Rubio, fresh off his “strong” third-place finish in Iowa, had arrived on a wave of expectations – RUBIO-MANIA IS UPON US declared The Week, in almost all seriousness – was a telling moment. Rubio was derided for his “robotic” performance by everyone who didn’t know him. Those who did, saw something different. “What you were looking at is inexperience,” says Planas. “Christie wasn’t a politician up there, he was the federal prosecutor he used to be, and he had Marco on the witness stand. But since Marco has never really litigated, he was completely unprepared. You could see it in his eyes, he had no idea what Christie was even doing.”
In the final weeks, as Trump surged, Rubio faltered, and faltered again. He attempted to out-Trump Trump on the debate stage, calling him a “con man,” referring to his sketchy business deals, calling him out for his alleged fraud at Trump University and ripping on his appearance, as he’d done in his high school debates – in one oft-told story about Rubio’s adolescence, he decimated a high school debate opponent by making fun of his looks. Students laughed. Rubio won the debate.
Not this time, though. Instead, Rubio’s frantic upping of the ante looked desperate, which was exactly what it was. Perhaps had he started earlier, it would have made a difference – or not. Republican conventional wisdom seemed to suggest that just like with Romney in 2012, the GOP would settle on an “electable” and somewhat moderate choice. The problem with that theory, says Luntz, is conventional wisdom in 2016 has proved utterly worthless, though it took the GOP months to accept it.
“Republicans didn’t listen,” says Luntz. “They didn’t hear the anger because they spent too much time in Washington and not enough in the rest of America. The Republican finance people, the donor class, they didn’t see it and didn’t hear it, and by the time they did, it was too late.” Luntz compared it to a horror film: “You know something’s out there, but you don’t see it until you’re getting stabbed.”
Even in the final hours of the campaign, Rubio strained for relevance. You could see it in his face: the exhaustion, the confusion. “This is a fight for the heart and soul of the Republican Party,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper after his losses on Super Tuesday. After the protests broke out in Chicago over a Trump rally, Rubio went on the air to decry the violence. “We are being ripped apart at the seams as a nation and a people,” he told Fox’s Megyn Kelly. When all else failed, he blamed Obama. “President Obama has spent the last eight years dividing Americans along haves and have-nots, along ethnic lines, racial lines, gender lines, in order to win elections,” he said. None of it worked. He seemed to think, Why am I losing? He’d run in six elections in his career and won every single one of them. Why is this happening to me?
Well, there are a lot of reasons, actually. For starters, there’s “Little Marco,” a particularly resonant Trumpism that also happens to be an even more nuanced dig: In Miami, Rubio has for years been called “Marqito” – Spanish for “Little Marco” – by some influential Cuban GOP players, almost all of whom backed Jeb Bush. There’s also the problem of Rubio’s message, the great, hopeful immigrant – the Everyman narrative that has worked for him everywhere except in an election year whose dominant narrative has been predicated on anger and the stoking of anti-immigrant fears. Ted Cruz understands this. Cruz, the stock story of his father’s arrival in America with $100 in his underwear aside, is a Princeton- and Harvard-educated white dude who occasionally reminds people that he’s half-Cuban. Rubio centered his entire political life on his dual identity. Ultimately, it failed him. “As soon as he made up his mind to so identify himself with his immigrant roots, he lost the election,” says Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist. Rosenberg has written extensively about the challenges the GOP faces in appealing to Latinos given the extreme right turn the party has made. Rubio, he notes, ran a “parochial” campaign and never seemed quite mature enough to run for president. “But it was always a stretch,” he says. “Rubio wasn’t ready to run for president, but his party also wasn’t ready for him.”
The GOP establishment was ready for Jeb. Sort of. He was, admittedly, a lousy candidate. He gave fairly awful, awkward speeches, though with the kind of wonkish charm that those who actually like a politician who can talk about arcane economic policies, and who can delineate every point in his gazillion-page plan, appreciated.
In South Carolina, on the final day before the primary, I watched Bush speak twice: once to an upscale audience at a Salvation Army hall near Greenville, and to more-blue-collar folks at a high school in Central. What was striking was that, as opposed to Rubio, Bush didn’t just speak, he talked. He answered questions, including one from a nine-year-old boy wanting to know more about Bush’s tax plan. “You seem like a bit of a policy wonk like me,” Bush started in his weird-dad way, before launching into a 15-minute answer. Bill Clinton does this. Barack Obama does this. Even George W. Bush had a knack for connecting with his audience.
The Republican primary election, with its angry mobs, its “Get ‘Em Outta Heres!” and its quasi-fascist talk about wall-building and Muslim-banning, is turning into a race that is so terrifying it almost makes you miss Jeb Bush. You might disagree with every single one of his policies, but Bush at least had “substance,” as Arrizurieta says to me repeatedly prior to Bush leaving the race, something Arrizurieta swore would never happen – until, of course, it did.
As for Rubio, his loss in Florida can likely be summed up in one simple phrase: The voters saw through him. His landslide loss was not an embrace of Donald Trump; it didn’t have much to do with Rubio somehow descending into the puerile land of dick-size and locker-room jokes (though that certainly didn’t help), rather it was a straightforward rejection of the guy Floridians haven’t liked for a while. Rubio was the first Cuban-American speaker of the Florida House, something he achieved by forging connections with powerful, and mostly white, legislators from the northern part of the state, often at the cost of his own constituents, who, in one memorable case, suffered millions of dollars in losses to their education budget after Rubio agreed to divert state education funds away from his district. Rubio embraced, and then all but abandoned, the Tea Party. He was first for, then against, then for and then against immigration reform. He jumped the line, having an Oedipal showdown with Jeb Bush live, on national television. And he never showed up for work.
“The sad thing about Marco, he probably could have been re-elected forever,” says Bartlett. “After a couple of terms and some solid accomplishments, he might even have deserved to be president. Now, he’ll probably become a trivia question.”
Bartlett is supporting Trump – not because he likes him, but because he is convinced he will lose by a landslide, which, he thinks, is just the medicine the GOP needs. “Republicans have to be brought back to reality and at least make electability the prime criteria for getting the party nomination,” he says. “That alone will put pragmatists back in control.”
And in the meantime, the GOP moves slowly, painfully, toward acceptance. “[Republicans] fall in line,” the consultant Ed Rogers, who worked with both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, bemoaned to Bloomberg Politics’ Mark Halperin on his campaign show “The Circus.” “And Trump has interrupted that cycle!” Rogers, a courtly, white-haired Southerner, sounded very much like Ned Beatty in Network. “He’s not articulate, he’s not poised, he’s not informed….All he’s got going for him is a lot of votes!” Rogers looked dismayed. “Why hasn’t any of that hit home? Here we are. Here. We. Are.”