I wrote Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential obituary this morning and we’ve had a good back and forth with readers and on Twitter about whether my judgment is premature. Some have noted that McCain got the full force of the Bush-era immigration reform meltdown and still managed to get the nomination in 2008. Mitt Romney, even more improbably, managed to get the nomination even though he’d been the author of the policy around which the 2012 party had united in opposition. It’s worth thinking back – now with a little distance – just how amazing a fact that is.
With McCain I would say that there was a lot to John McCain before immigration reform; something you can’t say for Rubio. With Romney, well, Romney continues to defy my comprehension on both a political and ontological level, though I guess I would note that he’s not president.
But I want to expand on my original point about Rubio. It’s not simply that Rubio appears to have bet big and bet wrong on immigration reform – analogues of which McCain and Romney did too. It’s more than that. It’s that by betting wrong he’s set off a trajectory of events that cut pretty quickly toward his underlying weaknesses as a candidate.As noted, Rubio is already lurching here and there trying to grab on to any right wing cause he can find to rebuild his credibility on the right. But at this point it’s transparent. It’s painfully clear what he’s trying to do and he looks like a phony doing it.
This gets us back to pre-2010 Rubio, who, as I wrote earlier, was really an accidental senator. He managed to be at the right place and time to benefit from the Lord of the Flies-like GOP takedown of Charlie Crist.
In the 2010 moment Rubio was one of the avatars of the Tea Party revolt not only against President Obama but against the GOP establishment as well. The problem is that that’s not really who Rubio was. Not only did Rubio have a decent amount of low-level corruption baggage, he was neither an ideologue or a rebel. He was a consummate party guy and a deal maker. Exactly what the Tea Party types profess to hate. Becoming Joe Tea Party in 2010 was simply a convenient transformation that helped propel Rubio onto the national stage.
He certainly wouldn’t be the first politician to change his stripes like that. Far from it. But here’s where I think things get tricky. The immigration reform debacle is forcing Rubio to lurch right in a way that makes him look like a guy who has no political core, no principles – just an opportunist. And as his record gets further scrutinized, reporters and voters will find a pretty similar story waiting to be unpacked in the pre-2010 era. It all fits together into a clear and comprehensible narrative about a politician on the make. I did a little poking around today and I get the sense there’s no shortage of Florida Republicans ready to tell this story.
Now, perhaps this is all too intricate and arcane, not something that’s going to trip up a pol who’s attractive and affable and fits the bill establishment Republicans want filled. But, remember, Marco Rubio isn’t the only guy who wants to be the Republican nominee in 2016. Others want it too. And they’re going to have plenty of time and a good story to chip away at him for the next couple years. And that doesn’t even get back to the fact that immigration reform will still be an albatross around his neck.