One of the better ads in the 2016 Republican presidential nomination contest was a visual attack on Marco Rubio from Jeb Bush’s Right to Rise super-pac depicting Rubio as a weather vane, as the narrator gravely cited the Florida senator’s famous and multiple changes of direction on immigration policy. The ad tapped into a very old meme (the Humphrey campaign used it against Nixon in 1968, and Nixon used it against McGovern in 1972), and played up a weakness that even Rubio had to admit was real, insofar as much of his activity in 2015 and 2016 involved an extended apology to conservatives for championing a comprehensive immigration-reform bill that became toxic among grassroots Republicans.
But now that his once-promising but ultimately disastrous presidential campaign is fading in the rear-view mirror, Rubio is reviving his reputation as a flip-flopper in a manner that is astonishingly clumsy for such a bright young fella. Influential conservative columnist Philip Klein promptly takes him to the woodshed. After reciting Rubio’s many primary-season attacks on Trump’s character and values, Klein notes scornfully that Little Marco is trying to take it all back in a way that reminds us of past 180-degree turns.
It’s one thing to begrudgingly argue that as dangerous as he thinks a Trump presidency would be, that he thinks a Clinton presidency would be even worse. But to actually say that he would be “honored” by the chance to speak on Trump’s behalf at the GOP convention, and to downplay his previously stated problems with Trump as mere “policy differences,” is to prove the Rubio skeptics right.
That is, far from being an inspirational moral leader, Rubio has shown himself to be more of an opportunistic politician with his finger to the wind. He latched on to the Tea Party energy when he needed it to launch a long-shot Senate bid against an establishment figure in 2010. He embraced the idea of comprehensive immigration reform in 2013 in the wake of a GOP “autopsy” suggesting it was necessary to win in a changing electorate, but then downplayed it as it became a hindrance to his presidential campaign. Now he’s desperate to reconcile his past words about Trump — from just over two months ago — with his political need to fall in line behind his party’s nominee.
Klein doesn’t mention what could turn out to be the capstone of Rubio’s flip-flops: He is apparently reconsidering his decision to retire from the Senate. Yes, he’s under pressure from GOP insiders who fear his seat will go Democratic in November, and yes, he’s said it’s “unlikely” he’ll complete the backflip before the June 24 filing deadline. But the very fact that he’s not just saying “I made my decision last year and I’m sticking to it” is illuminating. And if he does run it will be quite the stab in the back to the sizable field of Republicans — including two of Rubio’s Florida congressional delegation colleagues from the House, and the state’s lieutenant governor — who have been running for the Senate counting on Rubio’s word that he was retiring.
Should it happen, perhaps one of Rubio’s opponents will ask Right to Rise for permission to update that weather-vane ad. The more Rubio flops, the more he seems inclined to flip.