It’s silly to pretend otherwise: As a Democrat, I’d rather run against Ted Cruz than Marco Rubio.
But that’s like saying I’d rather run against herpes than Marco Rubio. Of course I would. I don’t care that Ted Cruz may be smart and strategic. He’s also creepy and cruel, according to just about everyone who’s ever had the misfortune of knowing him for longer than 10 minutes.
I’d also rather run against Donald Trump than Marco Rubio. Again, obvious. But for me, less so than Cruz. Trump isn’t quite as easily caricatured as a cartoon villain. Before his current role as America’s most overexposed xenophobe, he was a celebrity con man whose job was getting people to like and trust him against all odds. Trump is a loser now after Iowa, and perhaps for good, but he is also unpredictable, unscripted, and unafraid to torch the establishment of which he was once a member. There’s no zealot like a convert in search of voters.
Rubio is none of these things—which is why the more I think about him as a potential GOP nominee, the less scared I get.
Rubio would certainly start with some strengths. His youth, background, story, and ability to tell that story will generate another round of fawning media coverage of Rubio as the Republican Obama (hence the echoes of Obama’s Iowa speech in Rubio’s). He will be called the Democrats’ Worst Nightmare by so many annoying pundits, who will quote from the latest Gravis Marketing/Insider Advantage/Outback Steakhouse™ poll that shows Rubio capturing 85.5 percent of the Latino vote and all Americans under 30.
Because Trump and Cruz have moved the goalposts on what it means to be bat-shit crazy in a primary, the press will confuse Rubio’s moderate temperament with moderate policies, of which he has none. Rubio was once described as the “crown prince” of the Tea Party. He has a 100 percent rating from the NRA. He’ll appoint justices who will overturn the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision. He opposes abortion with no exception for rape or incest. He opposes stem cell research and doesn’t believe in climate change. He’d send ground troops to Syria and trillions in tax cuts to the rich.
On immigration, who knows what Rubio will do next—and that’s kind of the point. In the primary, his experimentation with legalization has been an issue of loyalty to the Republican base. If he makes it to the general, it will be a character issue. When he ran for Senate, Rubio said he opposed citizenship for undocumented immigrants. When he got to the Senate, Rubio helped write a bill that supported citizenship for undocumented immigrants. When Rubio’s presidential ambitions were then threatened by a conservative revolt, he renounced his own bill.
This is such an easy story to tell. It’s such an easy story to understand. It’s not so different from when John Kerry voted for the $87 billion before he voted against it—a flip-flop that helped sink his 2004 campaign. Beyond Washington, Rubio’s dance on immigration won’t be seen as shrewd, it will be seen as cowardly and self-serving—basically, what people have come to expect from establishment politicians.
And that’s who Rubio really is, isn’t he? He’s been in elected office for most of his life. He’s not just cozy with lobbyists—he was registered as one. He’s cautious and guarded, a little too slick and overly rehearsed. Chris Christie has taken to calling him “bubble boy” for avoiding questions in favor of his stump speech. Then there was a New Hampshire reporter’s brutal description of Rubio’s interview with The Conway Daily Sun: “It was like watching a computer algorithm designed to cover talking points. He said a lot but at the same time said nothing. It was like someone wound him up, pointed him toward the doors and pushed ‘play.’ If there was a human side to the senator, a soul, it didn’t come across.”
Rubio’s campaign is based on the premise that he’s a new kind of leader for the next generation in a “New American Century.” And certainly, he looks the part and knows the lines. He’s young, charismatic, and never misses a chance to tell us how much cool rap music is on his iPad, even if no one asked (also, Pitbull isn’t cool).
But as a general election candidate, Rubio would combine everything people hate about Washington politics with everything they hate about Republican policies. He may be more formidable and disciplined than some of his nuttier rivals, but he will also be utterly predictable and conventional. We Democrats have won that kind of election before. We can do it again.