By now it is clear that Marco Rubio’s abrupt turn toward mockery and confrontation of Donald Trump was a catastrophic error that turned his campaign, which not long ago led prediction markets, into a laughingstock. Rubio has even conceded his mistake (“if I had to do it again I wouldn’t”). Sadly for Rubio, now that his negativity has darkened his once-sunny persona, and rendered him useless as a vehicle for anti-Trump Republicans, the very people who egged him on are now kicking him to the curb.
Take, for instance, conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin, an early enthusiast for Rubio’s aggression. “Trump must now become Rubio’s main focus,” she wrote on February 25. “He must pull together all the discrete arguments as to why Trump is unfit. This is a chance for Rubio to show he is a leader worthy of the high office he seeks. More important, it could be the beginning of the end of Trump.” The next day, she cheered on his attacks in a post titled “10 Things Rubio accomplished by taking down Trump,” writing, “Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) scored an impressive TKO against Donald Trump last night. More than near-unanimous praise from conservative and mainstream media, however, he accomplished a number of critical tasks in his goal to dislodge Trump from his perch atop the GOP presidential primary race.”
Several days later, danger signs had already appeared for Rubio, who was pulling back on his mockery on the stump. He performed miserably on Super Tuesday, but Rubin insisted the next day, in a post headlined “Why Cruz has a harder path forward than Rubio,” that Rubio’s plan was working brilliantly:
Rubio will get the benefit now of millions upon millions of dollars from #NeverTrump forces who recognize Florida (and to a lesser extent Illinois) is ground zero in the effort to stop Trump. In the next 10 days, huge resources not heretofore deployed against Trump will work to remind voters who Trump is and how he really treats the little guy. In this regard, Cruz’s months-long courtship of Trump works against him, underscoring his lack of moral spine and his opportunism.
By the next day, March 3, Rubin was still touting Rubio’s brilliance, though doubt was beginning to creep in, and her exhortations were now framed in the future tense, rather than as an established fact:
If the voters come to see Trump as a charlatan, they are likely to reward the man who has been trying hardest of late to unmask him [i.e., Rubio], not the one on an ego trip to remain in the race or the guy that built him up, helping to make him into the political monster he is today.
By March 4, Rubin was still clinging to hope for Rubio, but by March 6, she was pleading with Rubio to “toughen up” against Trump: “Rubio’s dismal showing in Saturday’s contests — some of his worst results to date, with not even a second-place in any of the 4 states — along with Cruz’s success in Maine and Kansas will fuel the perception Rubio is not the candidate to protect the party and country from Trump.” On March 7, she breezily asserted, “#NeverTrump Is Working,” sidestepping altogether the question of whether it was working for Rubio. And now Rubin rather coldly informs her erstwhile candidate, “Sorry, Marco Rubio, it’s time to fold.”
The same pattern could be traced throughout the conservative media. Here’s RedState blogger Dan McLaughlin on February 25, thrilling to Rubio’s onslaught:
Rubio was spitting straight fire from the starting gun, mocking Trump with ease and contempt and a smile on his face. … tonight was a Rubio we have not seen before, and he took it to another level, making complete fools of people who claimed as late as this afternoon that Rubio would not attack Trump tonight.
Two days later, he was dismissing warnings that Rubio’s juvenile taunts might backfire as evidence that the liberal media was terrified of Rubio’s new success:
But now that he has successfully decked Donald Trump in a debate by getting in his face and has gone remorselessly on the offensive insulting and belittling Trump – the only way to deal with a bully who can dish it out but can’t take it, really – Rubio is taking fire from Democrats and others who are deeply emotionally invested in Trump as the instrument of the GOP’s destruction at the hands of Hillary Clinton. The fact that they’re headed to the fainting couches at what Rubio is doing is a sure sign that he’s doing it right.
Even after his Super Tuesday debacle, McLaughlin was touting hopeful signs for Rubio. (“The good news for Rubio is that yet again, he proved the breadth of his appeal across the map. He continues to be the only candidate besides Trump who is running a 50-state campaign.”) And now, like Rubin, McLaughlin is advising Rubio to drop out and support Cruz — the candidate who declined to follow his advice to focus on disqualifying Trump.
There’s no sign here of introspection from Rubio’s former cheerleaders, no confession that the strategy they advocated, and insisted was working in the face of mounting evidence, had failed. It’s just the remorseless pity of Otter in Animal House: “You fucked up — you trusted us.”
For poor Rubio, this is the second time he tried to save his party from a mortal threat only to immolate his own ambitions in the process. In 2013, Republican insiders, fearing the long-term danger of demographic obsolescence, called upon him to lead the passage of comprehensive immigration reform. At first, Rubio’s prominent role seemed to make him the Republican savior; by 2014, the base had turned against him and his presidential prospects lay in ruins. Remarkably, he managed to rebuild his standing after disavowing his own bill. But he again offered himself up to take on a mortal (and this time, more immediate) threat to the party’s well-being in the form of a Trump nomination. And again, a giddy flurry of apparent success was followed by humiliating collapse.
The 2016 campaign is almost certainly not the end of Rubio’s political career. But he needs to stop listening to his so-called friends.