Well I don’t know why I came here tonight,
I got the feeling that something ain’t right,
I’m so scared in case I fall off my chair,
And I’m wondering how I’ll get down the stairs,
Clowns to the left of me,
Jokers to the right, here I am,
Stuck in the middle with you
Stealers Wheel, “Stuck in the Middle with You”
Fatuous tweets are a dime a dozen in politics. Though his cheap shot at Planned Parenthood (and his dismissal of Cecil the lion) is morally obtuse, Florida’s junior senator, Marco Rubio, at least has a great alibi: he’s running for president amidst the greatest circus show on earth. It takes really big red clown shoes to stand out in that crowd of carnival barkers and freaks. Compared with most of the other 16 candidates for the Republican nomination, Senator Rubio is almost statesmanlike. Almost.
At 44, Rubio remains a darling of the GOP. Young, bespoke, a relatively fluent orator, Cuban-American (in an almost monolithically white party) and a native of the nation’s most pivotal swing state, Rubio offers conservative voters a very attractive package. Fittingly, he is a career politician. The son of immigrants, Rubio is a Miami native, a Catholic who played football in high school and for a year in college before going on to earn a law degree at the University of Miami. His career has always been on a fast track. After a stint as Speaker of the House of Representatives in Florida, in 2010 Rubio, a hero to the Tea Party, rode the wave to victory in a hotly contested race for the U.S. Senate. After four and half years in Washington, Rubio, a father of four, retains a youthful and optimistic aura of one seemingly anointed.
If his record in the Senate has been less than stellar (see: becoming a member of the bipartisan Gang of Eight in 2013 seeking comprehensive immigration reform, an enterprise he must now ritually renounce to avoid excommunication from the Right), one could say the same about then-Senator Barak Obama (or Senator John F. Kennedy). If he has essentially fibbed for years about his parents fleeing the supposed horrors of Fidel Castro (they actually settled in Miami in 1956, three years before El Comandante came to power), it has hurt him little with the conservative Cuban-American community or the rabid base of the national GOP. Somehow, Rubio has even sort of lived down this scaldingly humiliating moment, during his televised official GOP Response to President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address:
He’s Got Issues
Though it’s tempting to dismiss him as a lightweight, Rubio is actually running what amounts to one of this year’s more substantive campaigns (admittedly, that says less than ever before). Calling for A New American Century, the senator is probably the second-most authoritative GOP candidate on foreign policy (though like Senator Lindsey Graham, a longtime Beltway hawk), his proposals for reversing Obama’s policies range from the impractical to the sublimely ludicrous. The home page for his campaign website features a giant Iranian flag in the background:
Say No To President Obama’s Dangerous Iran Deal!
President Obama has consistently negotiated from a position of weakness, giving concession after concession to a regime that has American blood on its hands, holds Americans hostage, and has consistently violated every agreement it ever signed.
In an address to wealthy GOP donors, Rubio made this startling claim:
“Iran will be not just a nuclear weapon power, but will have the capability to deliver that weapon to the continental United States in less than a decade,” Rubio said. “I don’t think any of us wants to live in a country where a radical Shiite cleric in Tehran can have a nuclear weapon and an ICBM that can hit where we are sitting right now.”
In previous elections, such preposterous fear-mongering might have fatally compromised Rubio’s credibility. In this election, however, the senator’s barbaric yawp pales in comparison with Mike Huckabee’s claim that the Iran deal would “take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.” Alas, the price of seeming almost statesmanlike in comparison with the Arkansas mountebank is that Rubio’s comment doesn’t fire up the GOP base. He shouts, but that matters little when everyone else is shouting, and many are shouting louder.
What has happened to his presidential aspirations this summer fuels much debate. The Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza, author of the politics blog “The Fix,” has this week reaffirmed Rubio as a good bet, ranking the senator the second-most likely candidate (behind fellow Floridian Jeb Bush) to secure the nomination. Sounding a bit like John McCain’s defense of the economy during the 2008 general election, Cillizza defends his ranking by citing Rubio’s solid “fundamentals.” He means, of course, Rubio’s solid fundraising and resilient popularity within the party. Down in Florida, Rubio-watchers continue pointing to the candidate’s likability, campaign discipline and cash as reasons not to discount him. Even they, however, have begun sounding the alarm over reported defections of Rubio donors and an undeniable collapse in his poll numbers.
Rubio’s position in the crowded, Donald Trump-dominated and deafened field has plummeted from 14% in June to just 5% by the first week of August, all without any perceived “gaffes.” According to the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, the senator sat squarely in the middle of the top ten candidates:
Trump – 19.8 percent
Walker – 13.2 percent
Bush – 13 percent
Paul – 6.4 percent
Carson – 6.4 percent
Rubio – 6.2 percent
Huckabee – 5.8 percent
Cruz – 5.8 percent
Christie – 3.2 percen
Kasich – 3.2 percent
Polls have shown Rubio losing even in his home state: trailing his in-state rival Bush by 12 points, according to a Mason-Dixon poll and, in a more impressionistic “email opt-in poll,” the senator actually comes in fourth behind Trump, Bush, and Scott Walker. Worse, Rubio isn’t even wining the Cuban-American vote! “The Miami Herald reports that Bush has a lead of 12 percentage points with the group, with 43 percent backing him, and 30 percent backing Rubio.”
Recent reports suggest a budding exodus of Rubio’s donors, not because he is failing as a candidate, but because he cannot stand out amidst the circus. Rubio is being described as “stuck in the middle of the polls without a clear base of support.”
Time for a Hail Mary
On August 6 in Ohio Fox News curates the GOP circus, staging a debate sure to cater to our culture’s thirst for sound bites and melodrama. Featuring the top ten candidates in the polls, led by Trump,the first debate of this presidential season is eagerly anticipated (perhaps especially among liberals who cannot suppress laughter at the candidates’ antics). Who isn’t looking forward to the Donald taking his spot in the center of this lineup?
Perhaps our enthusiasm for the debate should be tempered, however, by the lackluster performance of the 14 candidates who participated in a forum Monday in New Hampshire. The highlight seems to have been front-runner manqué Bush’s hemming and hawing about sending troops to fight ISIS and his mangled mirth about the greatness of the first President Bush (“In fact, I’ve got a T-shirt that says, uh, at the Jeb swag store, that says I’m the, um, I’m the, my dad’s the greatest man alive. If you don’t like it, I’ll take you outside”).
As for Rubio’s task in the debate (aside from ducking saliva and mud), conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin suggests a bit of nasty is in order: he wins if he “throws some punches, putting to rest the idea that he is too ‘nice’ to be president.” Over at Red State, too, Rubio is chided for having thus far shown little understanding of the Right’s fighting mood:
The smartest thing for Rubio to do at this point, if he intends to make an honest run for President instead of just elevating his profile as a Senator, is to publicly align himself with [Senator Ted] Cruz and/or [Senator Mike] Lee in a way that publicly gets him on the wrong side of [Senator Mitch] McConnell, [Senator John] Cornyn, and [Senator Lamar] Alexander. Something that would make people think to themselves, “Whoa, I didn’t think Rubio had that kind of fight in him.” He’s got to at least set a tone that says that occasionally, he can take the varnish off and lay the wood on someone.
Sounds like fun.
Rubio is not running for reelection as a Senator; it’s White House or bust. If his performance in Thursday night’s debate does not begin a renaissance in the polls, he might soon seek an altogether different line of work: