The Republican establishment is carrying their hearts and, more importantly, their checkbooks to Sen. Marco Rubio as fast as they can. These are the same people who lavished former Gov. Jeb Bush with over $100 million to spend on his campaign, and it earned him all of four delegates before he suspended his campaign Saturday night.
Similarly, and as I noted yesterday, it is far from clear to me that the endorsements Rubio is collecting this week, such as former GOP standard bearer Bob Dole and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, will make much of a difference. (Does anyone vote for someone because Pawlenty recommended him? This is an anti-establishment year and both men embody the establishment. What is more, they embody the complaint of many of the most conservative Republicans that the reason Dole and Romney lost was because they were not true red conservatives, like the venerable Ronald Reagan. That argument is foolishness not least because Reagan, though deeply conservative, would not have been conservative enough to satisfy today’s Tea Partyers. Reagan was averse to military engagements, backed an amnesty for undocumented immigrants, compromised with Democrats and raised taxes. No one in the GOP is going to confront that reality, but Donald Trump will force them to confront this one: Those endorsements only feed his narrative that he is the non-politician, the anti-establishment guy who can’t be bought, who is not beholden to Washington Republicans and will owe no big donors anything.
But, the problems with the Rubio campaign are larger than these kinds of strategic missteps. And these problems seem more indelible that any short-term miscalculations by his campaign staff.
First, there was his meltdown during the New Hampshire debate. Having been challenged by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for only offering canned phrases, Rubio responded with a canned phrase he went on to repeat three times. It was painful to watch but it was not uncharacteristic. Ask yourself if you have ever heard the senator from Florida say anything that didn’t sound like it had been drafted by someone who writes bumper stickers for a living? It is not only that this penchant for rote phrases pretending to be a worldview is lacking in intellectual depth, although it is that. Ronald Reagan, after all, had a more or less simplistic view of the world. No, Rubio’s difficulty is that it is not clear he believes the bromides he utters, whereas Reagan clearly did. One has the suspicion that if it served his electoral purposes Rubio would be all too happy to utter a different set of canned phrases. When I heard him speak at Catholic University last summer, his whole speech sounded like once-removed, like there was a ventriloquist somewhere behind the curtain telling him what to say. I turned to the friend with whom I was sitting and asked, “Como se dice ‘fluff’ en espanol?”
But to those who have known him longest, Rubio’s flustered performance Saturday night fit perfectly with an all-too-familiar strain of his personality, one that his handlers and image-makers have labored for years to keep out of public view. Though generally seen as cool-headed and quick on his feet, Rubio is known to friends, allies, and advisers for a kind of incurable anxiousness – and an occasional propensity to panic in moments of crisis, both real and imagined.
Ouch. It is difficult to imagine a quality one would less like to find in a future president than “an occasional propensity to panic in moments of crisis, both real and imagined.” I am betting that Donald Trump’s advisers are giving him a mission for Thursday night’s debate in Texas: Get under Rubio’s skin, let the American people see this side of his personality. And, I am betting the Donald will pull it off.
Rubio’s flip-flop on immigration will continue to haunt him throughout the GOP primaries and in the general election: He was part of the “Gang of Eight” that crafted a bipartisan bill which, like all such efforts, was far from perfect. But, once the GOP base revolted against the measure, Rubio backed away from his own handiwork. Trump and Cruz will beat him up for his original support for the measure and Democrats with the subsequent change of position. Republicans who think Rubio has a shot to win over large numbers of Latino voters because his name ends in a vowel need to understand something of the resentment that non-Cubans have towards Cubans because of the preferential immigration status they hold.
Rubio may be the most bellicose of all the candidates. Man of the bumper sticker ideas he holds came from the neo-con wing of the party’s intellectual class. He wants to end the nuclear deal with Iran, send more troops back into the Mideast, shoot at ships headed to or from North Korea if he so much suspects them of carrying contraband. Even many Republicans are weary of war and may not warm to this iteration of the neo-con war dance. When Trump was asked about Russian President Putin getting involved in the war against ISIS, and Trump suggested we should let him do so, the neo-con intellectuals went ballistic, but the people in the auditorium applauded.
I suppose by comparison, Rubio is preferable to Trump or Cruz. But, as I was discussing with a friend yesterday, in a nation of more than 300 millions, it is stunning that our choices are so bad. My friend is also a Catholic who knows a great deal about the Church, and I said to him, “You know, we complain about nuncios and the prefects of the Congregation for Bishops, but by comparison, the papal monarchy is looking pretty good.” He laughed, as I had hoped, but there was a deeper truth in the joke. However a society organizes the allocation of its political power, human nature, with its grandeur and with its warts, will make itself felt. In his biography of the Duke of Marlborough, Churchill writes about Queen Anne’s decision to remove all her Whig ministers, including the Duke, and concludes his treatment of the subject with this observation:
Queen Anne considered herself as entirely within her rights in cleansing herself from the Whigs whom she detested, and also in punishing the two great super-Ministers who had helped to force the Whigs upon her. In behaving thus the Queen violated every modern conception of the duties of a constitutional monarch, and also most of the canons of personal good faith. Nevertheless, neither she nor her subjects felt the same repugnance to these methods as we do to-day. Royal favour was like the weather. It was as useless to reproach Queen Anne with fickleness and inconstancy as it would be to accuse a twentieth-century electorate of these vices.
It is a good question who played the roles of Harley and Abigail in foisting this trio of bad choices upon the Republican Party. As Harley and Abigail played on the queen’s worst instincts, the “establishment” Republicans have nurtured the worst instincts of their base. Instead of disagreeing with the president, as any opposition party exists to do, and as is their undoubted right to do, they have sown anger and fear. How many establishment Republicans winked at the racist denigration of President Obama one encountered at some Tea Party rallies? How many “moderate” Republicans insist on peddling trickle down economics theories that don’t work? The GOP electorate’s anger and malignancy may be worse than Queen Anne’s fickleness and inconstancy, but they didn’t get that way without a lot of help. The GOP establishment brought this nightmare on themselves. And a guy with a pretty face who can memorize his lines won’t be able to save them.