It was a mere two days after the 2012 election, and the shock of defeat had barely worn off when the Republican Party’s answer suddenly became clear, and it was Marco Rubio. The announcement came in a column, portentously titled “The Way Forward,” by Charles Krauthammer, the operative-pundit, Fox News panelist, and columnist whom a National Review cover story had deemed the leader of the opposition to President Obama. The party’s predicament could be solved, Krauthammer announced, with “a single policy change: border fence plus amnesty.” Then, having softened on immigration and thus endeared itself to Latinos, the party need only elevate the handsome, right-wing young senator to the top of its ticket. “Imagine Marco Rubio advancing such a policy on the road to 2016,” rhapsodized Krauthammer. “It would transform the landscape.”
The Rubio Plan sounded awfully appealing to Republicans, not least of them Rubio himself, who set about constructing the fund-raising and advisory apparatus of a top-tier presidential contender. For a few months, the plan proceeded to near perfection. Then everything started falling apart, and it has kept falling apart ever since.
The Rubio Plan required the senator, heretofore a reliable conservative soldier on every issue including immigration reform, which he ran against in 2010, to reverse himself and persuade a large chunk of the party to follow along. This Rubio did with astonishing speed. Working with Senate Democrats to forge a compromise, he undertook a listening-and-persuasion tour among the party figures who had revolted against the last immigration-reform compromise, under George W. Bush. Rubio explained that his immigrant mother had left him a voice-mail, in Spanish, pleading for him to look out for immigrants. “They’re human beings just like us, and they came for the same reasons we came,” said Mrs. Rubio, via her son, in impressively polished, stump-friendly phrasing. “To work. To improve their lives. So please, don’t mess with them.”
Once-fervent restrictionists like Sean Hannity and even Rush Limbaugh showered Rubio with praise. In February of last year, Time displayed Rubio on its cover, anointing him “The Republican Savior.” (“There is only one savior, and it is not me. #Jesus,” Rubio tweeted, deftly averting a John Lennon–esque controversy while reflecting the general political reality that if you’re in a position to deny comparisons between yourself and the Messiah, you’re winning.) Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, gushed that Rubio was “so hot right now.”
We can now, in hindsight, identify last February as the apex of the Rubio bubble. Over the next few months, conservatives shook off Rubio’s charm offensive and whipped themselves into a familiar frenzy against his immigration-reform plan. They picked apart details just as they had every major legislative proposal of the Obama era—it was long; it was complicated; it gave power to bureaucrats; it would hand Obama a victory. A May National Review cover depicted Rubio, smiling between no-longer-tolerated deal-maker John McCain and loathed liberal Democrat Charles Schumer, under the headline “Rubio’s Folly.” By June, Hannity and Limbaugh had turned unreservedly against Rubio’s plan. By October, the Rubio compromise had grown so radioactive on the right Rubio had to, humiliatingly, renounce his own legislation.
But could the Rubio part of the Rubio Plan be salvaged? As his standing with conservatives decayed, the senator began to look for compensatory measures. Over the summer, he glommed onto a hot new idea taking hold among conservative activists: If Republicans refused to fund the government’s operations, Obama would have no funding to implement his health-care law, thereby strangling it in the crib.
The government-shutdown gambit turned out very poorly, in part because its central postulate turned out to be wrong: Shutting down the government did not prevent the launch of Obamacare. By the time Rubio figured this out, he had already disgusted many mainstream Republicans while also finding himself outshone among the true believers by newly emergent star Ted Cruz, another Hispanic senator but one untainted by Rubio’s bipartisan immigration history.
Rubio’s latest rehabilitation plan unfolded over the past few months. In November, he discovered an unexploited source of conservative indignation: the “Obamacare bailout.” The term referred to an item in the law, called the risk-corridor provision, designed to encourage insurance providers not to cherry-pick healthy customers. Those that attract an unexpectedly healthy cohort of enrollees will pay back a portion of their lower costs, while firms that sign up a more sick group than expected will get compensation.
The prescription-drug program enacted under President Bush in 2003 has the same feature. It had gone largely unnoticed among reporters, and completely unnoticed by conservatives, until some of them realized that the provision (a) would help prevent the actuarial collapse they had eagerly been predicting and (b) furnished them with the opportunity to jam two unpopular concepts—“Obamacare” and “bailout”—together. Rubio latched onto the “Obamacare bailout” and made its repeal his newest cause. House Republicans planned a hearing to denounce the bailout and called Rubio as their star witness.
The day before the hearings, the Congressional Budget Office released its latest budget projections, which proved devastating to Rubio in two ways. The first was that, unexpectedly, it calculated that the lure of affordable health care would encourage employees to work fewer hours—enough forgone labor to add up to 2.3 million full-time jobs. This was a political bombshell, and Republicans eagerly made Obamacare’s “job-killing” their obsessive messaging focus.
Helping along their decision to forget about the “bailout” was a calculation in the same report predicting the risk-corridor provision would likely collect $8 billion more from insurers than it paid out. A provision to take money from private firms could not remotely be described as a bailout; indeed, it was suddenly Rubio who wanted to put taxpayers on the hook by proposing to forgo billions of dollars of insurance-industry money. It was too late to cancel the bailout hearings, but Rubio hastily delivered his remarks and reneged on his promise to take questions.
Everything Rubio touches has turned to shit. The cumulative humiliations have transformed the former party savior into a figure himself in need of saving. How did it all go so badly? The Rubio Plan had sounded clever in the abstract. The premise, as Krauthammer had explicitly laid out, was that the party could jettison a single-issue position while holding fast to its cherished anti-government bromides. (“No reinvention when none is needed,” urged Krauthammer. “Do conservatism but do it better.”) Krauthammer may have been right that Republican elites would more willingly, or even eagerly, toss aside their fear of illegal immigration than revise their cherished anti-tax, anti-spending dogma. But broadening the party’s economic message has turned out to be easier. Republicans have delivered a series of well-received speeches advocating new proposals for health care, tax reform, and the like, softening the harsh plutocratic message they projected with Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney. None of this has prevented them from continuing to wage a campaign to immiserate the poor by cutting food stamps, ending unemployment benefits, and denying Medicaid to the uninsured. When you don’t need to grapple with specifics or difficult trade-offs, writing speeches with uplifting themes is extremely easy.
Passing immigration reform, on the other hand, is hard. It requires writing bills. Conservatives liked the sound of Rubio’s immigration plan, but it could not survive legislative contact with the enemy. Compromising on immigration means handing a legislative accomplishment to Obama, a taboo that dwarfs any ideological commitments. And so Rubio was cast in a role nobody could play. The party elders who thought they were enlisting him as the Republican savior were instead making him its martyr.
*This article appears in the February 24, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.