The Rubio Fantasy
David Brooks predicted a Rubio victory yesterday:
“It’s gonna be Rubio. I’m telling you, it’s gonna be Rubio.” – David Brooks on the GOP nominee. #MTP
— Meet the Press (@meetthepress) January 24, 2016
A few months ago, I can understand why some people might have still believed this. After all, voting was still far off then, lots of things could have changed in the meantime, and there was a decent chance that Trump, Carson, and Cruz would falter enough to give Rubio an opening. Since then, Cruz replaced Carson as the main competition to Trump, but otherwise the structure of the race has remained remarkably stable. Trump and Cruz have been leading the rest everywhere for weeks, and Cruz has been threatening to take Iowa. The top two candidates haven’t faltered, and if anything Trump has consolidated his position in the early states. Trump now leads in Iowa, and the caucuses are just a week away.
The structure of the race has stayed the same, and so have Rubio’s poll numbers. He hasn’t gained or lost much ground, but he has lost enough that he is now in fourth in New Hampshire, where he cannot afford to finish below third. He remains stuck in a distantthird in the other three states with contests in February. His lack of a strong ground game gives no reason for confidence that he will outperform his meager polling, and his recent flurry of campaigning obscures the fact that he has neglected to visit these states very often before the last few weeks. Those that want to cling to hope can look to Minnesota for encouragement, but that tenuous “lead” probably won’t survive a month of bad results. Given all of this, there is not much reason to expect that Rubio will win any caucuses or primaries, much less the nomination. Brooks said a little later, “Wait for Rubio.” We’ve been waiting for a year, nothing’s happened, and now he’s run out of time.
So why would anyone say this? A large part of it has to be a desperate hope on Brooks’ part that this is what will happen, but it is so divorced from what is really happening that it verges on delusion. It’s not just that no one has lost Iowa and New Hampshire as Rubio is sure to do and then gone on to be the nominee, but that no candidate is likely to come back to win the nomination after finishing third or fourth everywhere for at least the first month of voting. McCain and Romney both won New Hampshire in their respective cycles, and Bush won both Iowa and South Carolina. Trump is on track to pull off a hat trick that none of them ever managed. There is nothing to support the belief that Trump would then lose after having the strongest start of any Republican candidate in the last fifty years. It takes yet another leap of faith to assume that Rubio of all people would be the one to beat him.
The Rubio fantasy is probably appealing to some Republicans because it means that the GOP and the country are not all that different from the way they were in the 2000s. If Rubio could win, it would mean that the discredited Bush-era agenda was still viable (among Republicans at least), and it would mean that the people that created and supported that agenda were still in full control of the party. The old rules that say that the party elites’ favored candidate gets the nomination would still be in force. For all the talk that Rubio is a “generational” candidate who would lead the GOP into the future, a large part of Rubio’s appeal to his (relatively few) supporters is that he promises to take the U.S. back to the Bush years: U.S. “leadership” and activism abroad and vaguely “compassionate” conservative activism at home. But both the GOP and the country have changed, and the crash and the recession are still reshaping the political landscape in ways that many party elites and pundits thought had been largely avoided. Rubio tried to run on a slightly revised Bush-era agenda that pretended that the world was much the same as it was when Bush was re-elected, and he discovered to his surprise that very few people in the GOP were interested in that. The problem was not so much with Rubio personally–he is well-liked by most Republicans–as it was with the policies he was pushing. The very things that were supposed to make him appealing and successful (his immigration and foreign policy views) were the things that hampered and weakened him.
The fantasy that Rubio can still win also appeals to those that assumed that Walker, Bush, and he were the “top tier” candidates and that the only real question was about which one of the three would end up winning. Walker has since dropped out, Bush collapsed and won’t recover, and now Rubio is the only one of the so-called “top tier” with any chance of competing. Those three fit the conventional mold best, and their weaknesses and liabilities were dismissed or simply ignored. Rubio’s vulnerability on immigration was discounted as something that mattered only to a small number of voters. Brooks said as much last April:
His weaknesses are not killers. Rubio’s past support for comprehensive immigration reform irks activists. But it’s not clear if it will hurt him with the voters who are more divided on reform. According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last year, 66 percent of Republicans believed that illegal immigrants should be eligible for citizenship if they meet certain criteria. Immigration reform didn’t kill John McCain’s candidacy seven years ago.
Rubio’s immigration record has turned out to be much more important and damaging than that, and one reason that it has hurt Rubio more than it did McCain is that he has tried to have things both ways on the issue in a way that reflected poorly on his political judgment and character. (McCain pretended to be chastened by the backlash against his immigration bill, but he didn’t abandon his position or claim to be anything like a restrictionist.) And if immigration didn’t kill McCain’s candidacy in 2007-08, it very nearly did, and he was a veteran and the presumptive front-runner/heir apparent coming into the race. A first-time candidate with similar baggage and no other accomplishments never really stood a chance, and that was obvious to those that were willing to see it. That’s why his candidacy never made any sense.
Virtually everyone failed to anticipate Trump and Cruz’s success, and almost as many have continued imagining a Rubio success that will not happen. It’s time to acknowledge that Rubio missed his chance, and it would be even better to recognize that he never had that much of a chance in the first place.