After another series of confusing results in state GOP primaries it’s beginning to look like this is a race between Donald Trump, the New York real estate tycoon turned television reality show personality, and Ted Cruz the first term U.S. Senator from Texas. Both are outspokenly anti-establishment and have antagonized the Republican leadership and opinion makers by their remarks and behavior. The third player in this unlikely triumvirate, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, has tried to be a bridge between the angry conservatives who make up the bulk of the GOP base and those more pragmatic conservatives who constitute most of the Republican Party’s leadership. But by all indications, his support is collapsing. Even Florida, his home state looks iffy as polls continue to show him trailing Trump badly and Cruz plants his flag there to further soften Rubio’s support and maybe knock him definitively out of the race. Are Rubio’s problems traceable to his lack of conservative bona fides as many of his detractors in the base maintain? Is he too pragmatic? A betrayer of the cause because of efforts early on in his short U.S. Senate career to forge a pragmatic resolution of the vexing immigration issue (the so-called “Gang of Eight” legislation that failed)?
His speech and its reception at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland on March 5th suggest otherwise. An articulate, even eloquent, speaker when he’s on his game, even when stricken by a bad cold as he was at this year’s convention, he got a warm and enthusiastic response to the rousing remarks he delivered; and in the lively question and answer session that followed. So why does he keep losing primaries and caucuses in conservative GOP bastions in state after state? What’s the problem with Marco?
It comes down to this: He’s young. Not that he’s too young chronologically, because younger men have run for, and served as, president (John F. Kennedy for instance). It’s that Marco Rubio looks young, like a kid, in fact, and looks count if they’re not offset by other factors. Because he’s relatively inexperienced he often stumbles, let’s his nervousness show, which only reinforces the image of extreme youth his cherubic face projects. Voters could, of course, look past that if he came to the table with a lengthy resume of accomplishment, but all he’s really got to offer us is oratory and the extensive knowledge of issues that it reflects.
Senators, as a rule, don’t get to do much but speechify and vote (when parliamentary rules permit) and Rubio’s only been in the Senate for a short time, too short, really, to have amassed much of a record. His prior service as a Florida state legislator doesn’t add much either because time logged in state legislatures is viewed by many as junior league, the JV squad of politics. So there’s not much he can show voters across the country on that score either. The sometimes unsure look in his eyes, his occasional, but too frequent, verbal stumbles, the gulps between words, the nervous licking of his lips, even when he’s delivering a resounding applause line, all reinforce the softness of his boyish looking face, suggesting a bar mitzvah bocher more than a man of substance. Nothing in his presentation offsets the patently thin resume behind it. Rather it reinforces our awareness of just how thin it is. The confluence of these factors undermine his claim on our confidence, whatever his conservative bona fides actually are.
JFK was younger when he ran for president, and won, but he had a confidence born of his almost aristocratic birth, the noblesse oblige that great wealth bestows on its possessors — even in democratic societies like ours. Marco Rubio, on the other hand, comes from humble circumstances, the sort of background most of us hail from, which doesn’t elevate him in our eyes. Do we want someone like us riding point as we head into the unknown future, an ordinary soul? Or are we searching for someone extraordinary?
Donald Trump, a rich man grown richer by his own hand (as he tells it), has the sort of confidence Americans once admired in JFK more than fifty years ago, albeit of a coarser type. Trump exudes the sense of control, of power that once seemed to hover over the much more polished Jack Kennedy (whatever actually went on behind the scenes in his personal life). Voters want to vest their hopes and goals in their leader, to think he (or she) is bigger, greater than they are. If not, why have a leader at all? But Marco Rubio is like the rest of us, for all his rhetorical capacity to strike at our hearts with well chosen words, while Trump is larger than life, more of what we want to be. We don’t want to be the little guy who made good by joining the middle class but that big fellow others stand aside for. If they’ll get out of his way then they’ll get out of ours, too, and we can become Trumps by proxy if he leads the way. Trump’s our ticket to the dominance so many of us crave.
Rubio on the stump, lashing back at Trump, was good because he was clever, sharp and actually seemed to be enjoying himself. But in the end Trump’s demeaning references to him as “Little Marco” on the recent debate stage in Michigan stung — and viewers could see it. They saw that Marco was really just like them, an ordinary guy up against a veritable force of nature, a Category 5 hurricane of the sort that devastated the eastern seaboard a few years back. Super Storm Trump out-trumps Rubio precisely because The Donald knows his audience. He knows they will excuse his excesses and so he revels in them. He knows he doesn’t have to be too careful, doesn’t have to tiptoe too much around sensitive subjects as Rubio and others do. He already has a core of devoted followers just because of who and what he is. As Trump himself half-jokingly remarked, he could shoot someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue and his supporters would remain unfazed. Hard to fathom but true enough it seems — if a bit hyperbolic. Marco Rubio can’t even afford to bump into a pedestrian. Being unseasoned, as he is, he’s bound to make mistakes — and more of them than a more seasoned candidate would. Even when he’s good, as Rubio often is, he’s never good enough to be flawless — the way a man with Trump’s persona never needs to be.
You can’t help thinking Rubio just went for the brass ring too early in his still young career. Perhaps in a different time voters would have been ready for his upbeat conservative message, his belief in pragmatic governance from a base of conservative principles. But not this time. This election year Republican voters want tough. They want a take it to ’em leader who can command, by his very presence — however obnoxious that presence may seem to some.
Like many primates in the wild, voters in this election cycle just seem to want to get behind the biggest, baddest primate in the band, the chest-thumping alpha male who leaps around the clearing in the loudest displays of dominance, uprooting young trees and waving their branches menacingly at all comers. The “troop” this cycle wants Mighty Joe Young, not “Little Marco,” and so we get the triumph of Trump in a GOP primary season like no other. The Republican Party will probably suffer for it and, one way or another, so, too, will America.
Marco Rubio should have waited a few more years and racked up some successes in his national career, gained more experience in the rough and tumble of the political jungle, before going for the gold. Now it looks like it’s too late for that and we’re going to get Trumped.