Trump and Rubio, Best of Frenemies

Little Marco and the small-handed Donald Trump in 2016. Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As the 2020 presidential cycle noisily ground to a messy conclusion, there was a lot of buzz in Washington that Ivanka Trump might challenge Marco Rubio’s reelection in Florida in 2022. It didn’t happen. And now Rubio can rest assured that he has the family imprimatur, as The Hill reports:

“It is my honor to give U.S. Senator Marco Rubio my Complete and Total Endorsement,” Trump said in a statement. “Marco has been a tireless advocate for the people of Florida, fighting to cut taxes, supporting our Second Amendment, our Military and our Vets, a strong national defense, and all of the forgotten men and women of America.”

It’s been a busy week for Trump. He also gave his Complete and Total Endorsement to another 2016 rival, Rand Paul. It completed a reconciliation tour he began with his similarly definitive endorsements of Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham in 2018.

To be clear, they all had to initiate the process by bending the knee to Trump, early and often. But the process has arguably been a bit rockier for Rubio than for the others.

Lindsey Graham seems to approach Trump with the clinical eye of a zookeeper dealing with a large, dangerous animal that must be soothed and carefully trained. Ted Cruz has simply surrendered to Trump, a man he must still privately despise for attacks on his father, his wife, and his own truthfulness. So, too, has Rand Paul, known for backing Trump even when it’s not entirely necessary.

But it’s Rubio who struggles most with Trump as a nemesis who must nonetheless be placated, co-opted, and eventually outlasted.

For a man still under 50, Rubio has had an unusually tumultuous career in the national spotlight. He started out as a tea-party darling in his successful challenge to Charlie Crist in 2010. By 2016, he was ready to leave the Senate for a White House bid after becoming sort of the thinking-person’s wing nut, and a favorite of the reform conservatives who wanted to solidify working-class support with tangible economic initiatives while reaching out to more diverse elements of the population. His big political problem, it was thought at the time, was the long shadow of fellow Floridian and early front-runner Jeb Bush. They both wound up resembling two gang members fighting on a street corner only to get run over by an 18-wheeler. Rubio’s campaign lasted longer than Jeb’s, but he got smoked by Trump in his home state. By then, Rubio and Trump had famously tangled in some of the nastier public exchanges of insults in an insult-laden presidential debate season, with Trump nicknaming the senator “Little Marco” and mocking his onstage nervousness, and Rubio suggesting the small hands of the relatively tall mogul might indicate shortcomings elsewhere.

On a more substantive level, Trump successfully tormented Rubio for his past championship of comprehensive immigration reform, which he could never quite shake. After folding his presidential campaign, Rubio salvaged his Senate career with two abrupt flip-flops: an offer to speak on Trump’s behalf at the Republican National Convention, and then reversal of his decision against running for reelection.

During Trump’s presidency, he and Rubio developed a sort of mutual-exploitation arrangement based on the Cuban American senator’s ability to galvanize and represent the anti-communist viewpoint of the Caribbean and South American immigrants who served as sort of symbolic counterbalance to the administration’s many Latino critics. It turned out to be highly instrumental in Trump’s 2020 win in the Sunshine State, which pivoted on a surprisingly strong showing in South Florida.

But Rubio ended the 2020 cycle as tormented as ever by what to say and do about Trump. Unlike his Florida colleague Rick Scott, he did not become a cheerleader for Trump’s efforts to challenge his election defeat, and did not vote for any of the electoral vote challenges on January 6. More for what he didn’t say and do than for any actual sin against Trump’s power and glory, Rubio has again been eclipsed in his home state’s GOP, this time by Ron DeSantis. The lockdown-defying governor, who owes everything to a timely Trump endorsement in 2018, is now a national MAGA darling, as NBC News recently reported:

recent survey by Tony Fabrizio, Trump’s chief pollster in 2016 and 2020, showed DeSantis and several others competing for second place in a field led by the former president and showed the governor tied with former Vice President Mike Pence as the second choice among Trump’s supporters. Rubio and Scott both ranked near the bottom.

Now more than ever, it’s unclear where exactly Marco Rubio is located in his party’s landscape, assuming he still aspires to the White House. He will never be the first choice of those plotting a post-Trump Trumpist GOP, though he seems to have been competing with Josh Hawley on that ground, with his recent eye-catching support for union activity against “woke corporations.” His history of advocacy for using the tax code to support low-income Americans may count against him, as Joe Biden’s Democrats move aggressively on that front. His rather outdated reputation for relative moderation probably isn’t enough to elevate him in the eyes of non-MAGA Republicans or the news media over shinier prospects like Nikki Haley, who endorsed Rubio’s candidacy in 2016.

All of this is to say that, as he runs for his third term in the Senate, Marco Rubio lacks the clear political identity that Rand Paul, with his diminished but enduring connection to his old man’s libertarianism, and Ted Cruz, with his tug on the loyalties of old-school movement conservatives, both enjoy. (That third 2016 rival, Lindsey Graham, seems happy to cruise toward retirement as a Senate baron and occasional wheeler-dealer). If his state’s most famous Republican, his frenemy at Mar-a-Lago, would just go away, it might be easier for Rubio to come into his own in Florida and nationally. But for now, he’s mostly lucky he won’t have to deal with Ivanka.

Trump and Rubio, Best of Frenemies