A lot of people in the United States don't know anything about soon-to-be ex-senator Marco Rubio of Florida, which means he theoretically still has a chance to be president, the same way the Philadelphia Phillies can still theoretically win this year's pennant. It will not last, and it will never have been realistic.
Rubio's entry in the 2016 presidential race will fuck up his hitherto inexplicably promising career. It will cost the Republican Party dearly in Florida and in Washington. It will prove to be one of the dumbest moves in the dumb history of politics. This will happen because Marco Rubio is that rare youthful combination of un-telegenic bumbling incompetence and malign corruption only Florida can nourish to maturity.
The Marco Experience
Rubio has two major political achievements. First, he was speaker of the Florida House of Representatives—an annual beauty pageant of ugly Republicans, by ugly Republicans, for ugly Republicans, so that ugly Republicans shall not perish from the earth. Second, he took an election from political changeling Charlie Crist, something that a reanimated pygmy skink could do, and has done. The thickest section of Rubio's resumé is his involvement in some truly ghastly internecine political and financial corruption. But he's running against a Clinton, a Bush, and a Texan. So much for that advantage.
Sure: On paper, Rubio looks like a formidable candidate, a nod to consensus wisdom on Republican electoral demographics. Part of the problem is not with him, so much as with the contradictions inherent in that wisdom. He sounds like a doctrinaire conservative, who hates social welfare and undocumented immigrants and alternate lifestyles. But! He's young and Latino! Who better to deliver a grumpy retrograde anti-minority vision of America's future?
It's true, Rubio's face is taut next to that of his rough contemporary and fellow Cuban-American, Ted Cruz. But it doesn't really exude freshness—like a Winn-Dixie cheddar log whose expiration date is months into the future, but whose suspicious shrink-wrapped languor still makes you pass it by in the supermarket cooler. You've gotta be really hungry to give it a chance.
The Marco Gamble
Cruz—who also will not be president in 2017—provides a perfect contrast to Rubio. Because Ted Cruz, however much of a detestable pandering creeper he might be, is an astute politician who has real incentives to crash the GOP primary this year. It helps him raise his profile for 2020 or later. More critically, it helps him grab de facto national leadership of rank-and-file Republicans that his Senate colleagues have refused to hand him de jure. Cruz is going the Julius Caesar route, and it will work out just fine for him.
Rubio has none of those incentives. He is skipping a run for reelection to the Senate next year. So in order to kiss an Iowa state-fair butter cow and hope it convinces enough slackjaw racist-emailing state delegates to rush over to his corner of some god-forsaken parqueted gym floor in Dubuque, he will have to give up a job he could have held for life as a United States senator in the union's fast-growing, third-largest, politically up-for-grabs state. A job that could have positioned him well for 2020 or 2024 or the governor's mansion or Fox News, after he'd had a few more seasons to learn to talk with his tongue in his mouth.
More to the point, Rubio's decision is going to cost Republicans hundreds of millions in critical political money at best, and lose them a previously safe Senate seat at worst. He was uniquely positioned to hold his seat in a presidential election year, which typically favors Democrats in Florida. Thanks to his blandness and his refusal to do, like, policy, his approval numbers and net positives beat those of any other state politician. No other Republican comes close.
And for all that risk, what is to be gained? When Rubio fails to win a ride on Marine One, he becomes an unemployed loser. Another Charlie Crist. Only younger and with fewer friends.
The Marco Brand
Didn't we say all this about a gawky rogue presidential candidate named Barack Obama? Sure. But Obama had the advantage of not looking and sounding like a complete fucking idiot. Obama was on the Harvard Law Review, not the Santa Fe Community College football team. Then again, that's not really fair to community collegians and football players: Plenty of each are smart enough to run the country. It just so happens that Rubio isn't one of them.
For proof, simply look to Rubio's campaign message, a bizarre simulacrum of "hope and change" focus-grouped by Red Stripe-swilling blue blazers who are slightly scared of hope and change because they've witnessed its power but never fully understood its appeal, like those crouched simians sizing up the galactic monolith in 2001.
Here is his campaign poster, with its apparent retail-mall inspiration:
Note the tagline. This is how we freshen up the Republican brand: by declaring a new American century in 2015, a sixth of the way into the century. (And by stealing mojo from the Iraq "regime change" neocons who formed the Project for a New American Century in 1997, just after Rubio finished his work on fresh-faced newcomer Bob Dole's presidential campaign.)
This queer store-bought concept of newness is Rubio's shtick. "Yesterday is over, and we are never going back," Rubio said to canned cheers yesterday upon announcing his candidacy, just after attacking Democrats for "looking backward" and before declaring that his novel vision of a future America involved militarism, banning abortion, school vouchers, and celebration of "family—not government."
Or his clearly controversial pronouncements to ABC News:
.@marcorubio to ABC: "I think the 21st century can be the American century, and I believe that I can lead this country in that direction."— Alex Leary (@learyreports) April 13, 2015
Even in the history of vapid political horse-races, this is a new level of content-free mad-libbing, an adolescent appropriation of the tissue-thin framework that undergirds our nation's political discourse: "I think the CILANTRO can be the SNOZZBERRY, and I believe that I can lead this TED TALK in that GLORY HOLE." Rubio is, as Hedley Lamarr might say, a provincial putz, and he is running a provincial putz's campaign to lead the free world.
The Marco Rationale
So why are we talking about him at all? For two main reasons. One is that, at least for the time being, he moves reporters' copy because he is enough of a phony cipher to shoehorn into their phony narratives. One need look no further than the writing of Jason Zengerle —whose Monday piece, "Why Rubio vs. Jeb Will Become the GOP Title Fight," talks little about Rubio and less about why he matters to American voters. But who cares? We have two guys who know each other, competing for the same prize! Make it work, man!
But the larger and more insidious reason we are talking about Marco Rubio is because his waifish, manufactured brand appeals to a small number of highly influential idiots with billions of dollars to spend fine-tuning a plutocratic system that's immediately responsive to most of their whims—but not yet all of them. These are the Koch-heads, the sugar barons, the neocon casino magnates, the football-and-car-dealership tycoons, the i-bankers and hedge-funders looking for a soft, supple hand to stimulate their sacks of cash with a youthful wink and a nod to old-fashioned values. Or just opportunistic contractors who see the wisdom in investing a little campaign money now to build billions worth of Coast Guard cutters later.
As long as Rubio holds these dollar-worshiping dullards in thrall, he has a card to play with smarter Republican leaders and more promising presidential candidates who need those coffers to win a general election—like a penny-ante land speculator who holds the last few deeds in the shanty town where the interstate highway is going up. He is not running for votes, but for the kind of power most voters cannot comprehend, because they will never see it out in the open.
This, in the end, is probably the soon-to-be-ex-Florida-senator's strongest campaign pitch: "MARCO RUBIO 2016: I Will Trade You My Big Donors For a Veep Nod and a Juicy Juice." He is destined to be the next John Edwards or Sarah Palin, only inordinately duller.
[Photo credit: Getty Images]