Late last fall, Republican media strategists Alex Castellanos and Gail Gitcho tried to interest several top Republican donors in funding a campaign to take down Donald Trump. “We want voters to imagine Donald Trump in the Big Chair in the Oval Office, with responsibilities for worldwide confrontation at his fingertips,” the two politicos apparently wrote in their memo to the donors. But that image did not win them any backers.
This week, even after his latest round of racially charged comments, the reality TV show star and billionaire developer is expected to dominate Super Tuesday and the SEC primaries, winning as many as 12 of 13 contests. Come Wednesday morning, his delegate count may well approach 400, or just over 50% of the total number delegates awarded to date across the five person field. Over the next two weeks, a further 545 delegates will be up for grabs in seventeen states. When the dust settles, 61% of the delegates will have been awarded, and, if his current levels of support in public opinion polls do not abate, Donald Trump will have secured upwards of 75% of the number of delegates that he needs to win the Republican nomination on the first ballot at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this coming July.
Standing in his path is Marco Rubio, the chosen champion of a Republican establishment that is reeling from their abject betrayal by a large swath of the base of their party. Like Horatius at the gates, defending Rome from the infidel Etruscan mob, Republicans have turned to the 44 year old, first term senator from Florida, to protect them from the devastation sure to befall party and country should Trump prevail.
How the Republican establishment could have settled on Marco Rubio as their champion — from among a field that Republicans themselves saw as wide and deep — boggles the mind. Eight years ago, Republicans mocked Democrats for nominating a first term senator — just a few years out from being a state legislator — whose main claim to fame was his ability to give a good speech.
Sound familiar? The Greeks in the heyday of Sophocles and Aristophanes could have produced no greater ironic script. Watching Marco on the Republican debate stage this week, just a few weeks removed from his merciless thrashing at the hands of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, made a further mockery of the seriousness of his candidacy. Marco has been urged for weeks by establishment party leaders and pundits to take the fight to Trump, and so he did. And each time he struck a blow — “You hired Polish workers!” or “Your ties are made in China!” — he could not resist looking up at the audience with that Alfred E. Newman grin, literally pumping his fists to the whoops of the cheerleaders placed in the crowd. Look, he was saying to the donors whose trust he needed to restore, and to his mother who has yet to fathom how far her little Tony has risen, Did you see that!
The next day, prompted by Trump’s continuing sophomoric taunts about Rubio’s tendency to perspire under the klieg lights, Rubio plowed ahead. Apparently thrilled with his newfound skill at playing the dozens with the GOP frontrunner, Rubio speculated before a crowd in Dallas that his retorts on stage had made the Donald pee his pants. And it got worse.
Marco’s gleeful engagement in the mudslinging that has become the Republican debates will not wear well. Rubio’s central problem as been his complete and utter lack of gravitas; the difficulty that he has when any but his staunchest supporters imagine him sitting in the Big Chair in the Oval Office. Rubio was pummeled by Chris Christie in earlier debates not because of irrelevant taunts, but because of relevant ones. Rubio indeed has no material experience in what Chris Christie — or any of the governors in the GOP race for that matter — would consider the real world. He has run nothing, he has managed nothing. Far from running the budget of a state — or the nation in the case of John Kasich — Rubio has famously struggled to run his own check book. In Alex Castellanos’s imagery, Rubio is sitting in that big chair, his high boots straining to reach the floor. Grinning his toothy grin, he feels the leather on the long arms of the chair, looks at the expanse of the Resolute desk — as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan did before him — and, giddy with the excitement of the moment, imagines what he will say to his mom that night.
Chris Christie endorsed Donald Trump because he simply could not endorse a man who was widely viewed in Florida — as conservative pundit and former Sunshine State Congressman Joe Scarborough likes to point out — to be an empty suit. Christie is not alone in his contempt for Marco. Jeb Bush detests Rubio not simply for failing to support him in return for the support Jeb showed Marco over the years, at at a more fundamental level for Rubio’s lack of respect for what experience means, and why it matters. Rubio’s disrespect was not just for Jeb, it was for the office of the presidency.
For his part, John Kasich chafes each time some emissary from the desperate reaches of the GOP suggests that he should step aside for the first term senator. One can imagine Kasich channeling his inner Moe Greene from the Godfather. You know who I am? I am the Governor of f — king Ohio. I was the Chairman of the House Budget Committee. I balanced the Federal budget when Marco Rubio was running around in short pants. I am a serious man. Who the f — k is Marco Rubio, and who gives a s — t if he can give a good speech. You want me to step down and run as Marco Rubio’s VP? No, he steps down. He can run as my VP. I don’t step down.
Marco Rubio is out of his league. He likes to tout his foreign policy chops in the debates, but somehow always has to raise his voice when he does, as if to find gravitas from volume that is not rooted in experience or evidenced by wisdom. It is not simply the hubris — that other gift of Greek tragedy — of the words coming from a man with little experience beyond sitting in Senate hearings, it is that his presentation is always scripted. You just know that if questioning were to go to a second or third level, he would struggle to acknowledge or deal with the complexity that real issues in the real world present.
Ted Cruz, and certainly Chris Christie, show great dexterity in following a debate and responding to the nuances that unfold. Not so with Marco. Once he is off script, he ceases to follow the implications of even his own words. This happened in the last debate. Donald Trump, the New York liberal masquerading as a right wing demagogue, was on the ropes. Struggling to defend his vaguely formulated proposal to replace ObamaCare, Trump repeated a line that he has said often. “We simply are not going to have people dying in the streets, that I can tell you.” To which Ted Cruz retorted, “who is going to pay for it?” Then Marco piped in, “this is a Republican debate!” Rubio was trying to mock Trump’s liberal sentiments, but seemed to forget that it was people dying in the streets they were talking about. Perhaps he might have said, “This is America, we don’t let people die in the street, but Donald’s plans lack any substance…” Instead, he essentially said, “hold on there, we’re Republicans, letting people die in the streets is what we do…” He was adrift.
A governor, any governor, would immediately understand that letting people die in the streets is not an acceptable outcome. That is why we usually look to governors when picking presidents. Government has certain responsibilities. Republicans and Democrats can disagree on where the limits of government end and individual responsibility begins, but people dying in the streets falls pretty clearly on the same side of the line as national defense and natural disaster relief. It is something that until last week’s debate, no one who is a serious candidate for higher office has suggested that they favor.
Marco Rubio is not ready. Chris Christie knows this, John Kasich knows this, and Jeb Bush knows this. And deep down inside, most of the big dogs of the GOP who have endorsed Marco Rubio know this. He is not the savior of the GOP that people want to imagine — not this time around anyway. He is the one who should step aside, before he gets crushed in the Florida primary. Leaving now, before the deluge, will preserve his viability in his home state, where he can return and run for governor in 2018. Then, perhaps in 2024, when he is in his early 50s and has some experience under his belt, when he has qualifications for the position he seeks, he can return to the national stage and take his shot at the Big Chair in the Oval Office.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at jayduret.com.