By Matthew E. Milliken
March 19, 2016
On Tuesday night, I was surprised neither that U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio lost the Florida primary to businessman Donald Trump nor that he subsequently dropped out of the race for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination as a result.
As it happened, I caught Rubio’s concession speech while I was listening to National Public Radio primary election coverage in my car. He gave a good speech and he delivered it well; I can easily understand why some pundits thought that he would be Obama 2.0, a conservative political wunderkind who would energize American youth and minorities in a way no Republican presidential candidate has since — well, perhaps since Ronald Reagan… or maybe it’s more accurate to say in a way that no Republican presidential candidate ever has.
Unfortunately, as so often happens in politics, the lofty rhetoric of Rubio’s farewell speech didn’t match up very well with the cold, hard facts of reality. On Tuesday evening, Rubio said:
[T]his is the campaign we’ve run, a campaign that is realistic about the challenges we face but optimistic about the opportunities before us. A campaign that recognizes the difficulties we face, but also one that believes that we truly are on the verge of a new American century. And a campaign to be president, a campaign to be a president that would love all of the American people, even the ones that don’t love you back.
Compare that with a foreign-policy speech that Rubio delivered in New Hampshire in early January:
What became abundantly clear was this: Barack Obama was deliberately weakening America. He made an intentional effort to humble us back to size, as if to say, “We no longer need to be so powerful because our power has done more harm than good.”
From the beginning, elites around the world, by the way, rejoiced at this. The Nobel Peace Prize was thrown at his feet. But happiest of all had to be America’s enemies. Because when America steps back, it gives darker forces the space they need to rise, and rise they have.
Rubio then proceeded to blame Obama for the so-called Islamic State or ISIS, China’s military expansion, the homicidal lunacy of North Korea’s leader, Vladimir Putin’s military buildup and aggressive military expeditions, the release of billions of dollars of Iranian money “that will be used to sponsor anti-American, anti-Israeli terrorism and to develop long-range missiles that can be used to launch nuclear weapons.”
Rubio speaks with the authority of someone who slept through the entire presidential administration of George W. Bush. That would be the President Bush whose invasion of Iraq unleashed grievous consequences across the Middle East, including the advent of ISIS, and whose policies did little to deter Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia or the continuation of missile and atomic weapons programs in either North Korea or Iran or the growth of China’s military. Moreover, the senator from Florida flirted with calling Obama an out-and-out traitor, which is hardly the mark of a politician interested in unifying a fractured nation.
Nor did Rubio seem to be taking the high road with some of his aggressive jibes at Trump. At one point in late February, Rubio told a crowd that Trump stands around 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3, but “his hands are the size of someone who’s 5-2.” As CNN reports,
Rubio mocked Trump and set up a penis joke, saying, “You know what they say about men with small hands?” He paused, let the crowd cheer, and said, “You can’t trust ’em!”
At the same rally, according to NBC News, Rubio joked, “Donald Trump isn’t gonna make America great, he’s gonna make America orange.” The reference to Trump’s admittedly atrocious tan was funny, but it seemed an awful lot like the tactics — making people angry at each other — that he himself had supposedly eschewed.
Nearly as risible was the attack on Republican party elders that Rubio made in his farewell speech. Rubio said that Washington’s persistent failure to adopt desired conservative policies was due in part to “the conservative movement, a movement that is supposed to be about our principles and our ideas.”
But, Rubio continued,
I blame most of it on our political establishment. A political establishment that for far too long has looked down at conservatives, looked down at conservatives, as simple-minded people — looked down at conservatives as simply bomb-throwers.
Moments later, Rubio called for conservatives to commit anew to the movement’s core values, including free enterprise and strong national defense. He added:
But we also need a new political establishment in our party, not one that looks down on people that live outside of the District of Columbia, not one that tells young people that they need to wait their turn and wait in line, and not one that’s more interested in winning elections than it is in solving problems or standing by principles.
Rubio seems to have completely overlooked the fact that many of the most committed hard-core conservatives really are just bomb-throwers. That label almost literally applies in the case of the man who killed three at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic and who recently disavowed guilt because his victims “were in a war zone. They were there where the babies were being killed. You go to a war zone. That’s what happens.”
Fortunately, no one used explosives when militants took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon for 41 days, but a cache of them were found when the siege ended. This week, an in-depth report by Oregon Public Broadcasting revealed that Republican lawmakers from various Western states aided and prolonged the hostile occupation. This is a group of armed protestors, mind you, who were so eager to get people killed that one of them, LaVoy Finicum, nearly ran over a law-enforcement officer before committing suicide by cop.
Rubio also seems to have forgotten that U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the poster boy for hardline conservatism, made his name in no small part by helping to trigger an ill-conceived and ultimately pointless government shutdown. This act of “governance,” which turned out to be quite costly, was aimed at thwarting the implementation of health-care reforms that were relatively conservative in nature. (He also tried to force a shutdown last fall over federal funding of Planned Parenthood, but by then Cruz had alienated most of his fellow right-wing legislators.) Cruz also made waves in the nation’s capital by repeatedly blasting Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as an untrustworthy politician who was “undermining the liberty of the people.” In what was considered a startling breach of decorum, Cruz used a Senate speech to call McConnell a liar.
In other words, if the Republican establishment is treating hard-liners as bomb-throwers, it’s because that’s exactly how members of the far right have behaved, time and again. And given the right’s preference for standing by principles and getting nothing rather than compromising and getting something, it’s astonishing that Rubio calls for an establishment to focus more on “solving problems.”
Rubio’s critique is also immensely ironic because the Grand Old Party establishment — which is skeptical at best of Trump and which despises Cruz, his last major rival for the nomination — would have loved to see the 44-year-old senator from Florida at the top of the ticket this year.