11 Mar 2016

“There should be some prize for the most creative attempt to write about Trump without mentioning immigration,” David Frum suggested Tuesday on Twitter.

That would be a lively contest, but it might be even more fun to give out prizes to the deluded pundits who write about Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) without mentioning immigration as a principal reason for his fast-sinking political career.

These days, Senator Rubio finds himself in the glum position of reading obituaries for a campaign that is not actually dead yet, like a character in The Walking Dead contemplating the zombie bite on his forearm and thinking, Gee, I don’t think I’m putrefying yet. … Maybe I’ll get better.

After this week’s primaries, he could have read a library of reports describing him as a spoiler candidate and tallying up how many delegates his continued role in the race is costing Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).

Very few of those analysts are asking if Rubio’s once-promising presidential run was doomed from the start. They are scratching their heads and looking for elaborate theories to explain why Rubio never took wing, without asking if they might have overestimated the size of his wings all along. So many of the Rubio campaign’s undertakers have whistled past the Gang of Eight graveyard that it’s hard to avoid the conclusion they just do not want to talk about liberalized immigration as a toxic issue.

“Some Supporters of Rubio Say Bad Strategy, Poorly Run Campaign Killing His Chances,” The Washington Post headlined this week. Apparently none say “immigration” or the “Gang of Eight” killed his chances because neither of those phrases appears in the lengthy article, which had three authors.

It might be quite accurate to report that none of Rubio’s high-profile supporters offered immigration as the reason for his self-detonation on the launchpad–because they’ve hypnotized themselves out of even thinking such forbidden “nativist” thoughts. The Titanic is going down, and they’re complaining about the wine while ignoring the iceberg outside the wheelhouse.

The mass self-delusion goes all the way back to the infamous post-2012 strategy memo from the Republican National Committee that advised the GOP to become more “inclusive”–a directive many Party bigwigs interpreted to mean “embrace amnesty for illegal aliens, pronto, or lose the Hispanic vote forever.”

Matt Lewis at the Daily Beast avoided mentioning the I-word in his “Adios, Marco” post, even as he asked whether Rubio was “the great GOP hope, or dope.”

Lewis hailed Rubio as “the most talented conservative of a generation,” with special praise for his ability to mix conservative politics with a “moderate” temperament and feel, calling him “optimistic in a party (and during an era) when indignation is more in vogue.”

Rubio’s problem is not just that voters are “indignant,” but that they’re weary of hopey-changey upbeat rhetoric, especially on the immigration issue. There are few other issues where mushy rhetoric is so liberally slathered atop grim realities, or where bromides are administered to numb our common sense.

Soaring rhetoric about huddled masses yearning for the American Dream in a nation of immigrants hangs heavy in the air, but Republican voters want to know what their prospective candidate is going to do about illegal alien murderers who skip through our immigration system with impunity, cross-border tidal waves rewriting the U.S. census, and visa programs used to replace American workers with cheap imported labor. GOP voters are not so much embracing pessimism as declaring their distrust for glib optimism.

When The New York Times watched as “A Wounded Marco Rubio Falls Back to Florida,” immigration was not one of the problems they choose to notice. Their diagnosis was more concerned with recent missteps, such as going overboard on juvenile personal attacks against Donald Trump, and underperforming in so many primaries that his walking-dead campaign status became the dominant Rubio narrative.

Another New York Times autopsy thought Rubio was in pretty good shape, until Chris Christie sandbagged him with the “robot” attack in the debate before New Hampshire, suggesting that Rubio had no idea how bad he looked in that debate until he checked Twitter and found a torrent of mockery directed his way. More broadly, this analysis of the Rubio campaign suggested he placed too much faith in his onstage political gifts, which the robot-glitch stumble fatally undermined, and for reading the strategic situation in the early primary states incorrectly. The Times suggests Rubio thought he could be the polished, affable candidate left standing after Trump and Ted Cruz beat each other to a pulp, but he was wrong.

“Rubio’s Storybook Political Life Faces a Dark Chapter,” pronounced Time, but that chapter wasn’t about immigration or the Gang of Eight. This obituary goes further back into campaign history than most, and hits with a truckful of non-immigration criticism–his problem with being “robotic,” underestimating the need for an extensive “ground game” in early primary states, overestimating the benefits of his mentor-turned-nemesis Jeb Bush dropping out, losing focus by trying to “be everything to everyone,” panicking under the blunt force of the Trump assault, and failing to manage expectations for the underwhelming launch of a much-anticipated campaign.

Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight briefly mentions the immigration debacle, but mostly in the context of Rubio’s thin resume:

As a first-term senator at a time of political gridlock, he hasn’t gotten much legislation passed: According to the Thomas database, the only bill to have become law of which Rubio was the main sponsor is the Girls Count Act of 2015. His most high-profile legislative effort, on immigration reform, ended in failure.

Silver’s overall thesis is that Rubio might have been generally well-liked, or at least well-spoken-of, by the media, but he “never had a base” among actual voters. He has a number of interesting explanations for that problem, but the Gang of Eight should loom larger because it was a major breach of faith between Rubio and what should have been his base–including the Florida voters who elected him to the Senate. Rubio’s victory was huge for Tea Party conservatives, one of the few bright spots on a dark day in 2008. Expectations for his Senate career were very high.

A great many people who think highly of Rubio, including those who would normally be delighted with what Silver notes is his strongly conservative voting record, just cannot get past the immigration issue–and at a moment when Rubio might have laid the groundwork for getting past it, he wound up in a nasty scrum with Cruz over the fine details of the latter’s position on immigration reform. It’s as though the Gang of Eight fiasco became a blood clot that prevented Rubio from developing robust electoral circulation and a strongly beating campaign heart.

Slate’s Isaac Chotiner gets it right, and runs through Rubio’s missteps to arrive at Rubio’s “original sin”:

And, of course, there was his original sin: his membership in the so-called Gang of Eight, a group of senators who worked to pass an immigration reform proposal that, it was thought, might give Republicans a chance with Hispanic voters. This would have supposedly closed the wound of the 2012 election, which Republican elites had convinced themselves was lost only because the party was too harsh in its rhetoric on the issue. Rubio’s decision made no political sense even at the time; if a bill had passed, he would have had his name on Obama’s biggest second-term achievement. Instead, Rubio was tarred with the details of a bill that failed, and which he abandoned, making himself look both feckless and unprincipled.

Of course, because this is Slate, we then get some egregious garbage about how Rubio’s “pro-immigration past mixed with his heritage in the minds of bigoted Republican voters,” which is not only insulting, but ignorant. Rubio’s “heritage” had absolutely nothing to do with the political fallout from Gang of Eight for Republican voters, but plenty of Democrats have taken to taunting him (and Ted Cruz) as “phony Hispanics,” “race traitors,” and so forth.

If Rubio’s race had any effect on the immigration protest, it was a disappointment that such a uniquely gifted rising conservative star, who was so well-positioned to make a strong case for security and rule of law, instead agreed to become the disposable pitchman for Sen. Chuck Schumer’s immigration bill. Rubio was the establishment’s ambassador to conservatism, not its conservativm’s representative.

I would also note that Ted Cruz is doing very well in the Republican primary without anyone having dark thoughts about his “heritage”… except for that business about his alleged Canadian heritage. That’s about legal technicalities, not serious concern that Cruz is the Manitoba version of the Manchurian Candidate. There is no invidious racism against Canadians in the United States, although Justin Bieber is working on our last nerve.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for Cruz was the feud with Rubio, in which the latter attacked Cruz’s rule-of-law credentials on immigration. The final deflation of the Rubio campaign began when Cruz won that argument, or at least held his own, depending on whom you ask.

The bottom line is that it’s silly to dissect the Rubio campaign without citing immigration as one of his most serious problems, if not the fatal flaw that undermined many of his other gifts.

It’s one of the reasons his popularity plummeted in Florida, where his election to the Senate was once a conservative revolutionary epic of heroic proportions. As the Florida primary looms, note that Rubio banked an impressive amount of early votes–but not the dominating blowout one would have expected from Florida’s native son, who has been held up not so very long ago as the brightest leader of a new Republican generation.

Of course, the Left-media will find ways to use the Rubio story to its advantage, and it certainly isn’t going to dwell on the Gang of Eight as his fatal mistake. Expect to see a lot more coverage about how the sunny Senator was too optimistic for the angry, hateful Republican Party, or more drive-by-media shootings, suggesting he was undone by Trump-loving racists. (If Trump bests Cruz for the nomination, that narrative will become easier to peddle.)

The GOP Establishment may use Rubio’s fate as evidence that Tea Party-type conservatives are too demanding and have unreasonable expectations of their elected officials.

News junkies will fixate on the last few cycles and say Rubio blew his shot at Trump, or heroically sacrificed himself in a kamikaze attack to break Trump’s momentum. They’ll marvel at how Chris Christie took Rubio out in a kamikaze strike with the robot stuff, or remember how Jeb Bush burned a hundred million bucks to accomplish little except damaging his fellow Floridian.

Strategy reviews will be written about how the “Establishment lane” in the primary was too crowded, or how Rubio took too long to decide if he wanted to drive in the Establishment lane or the conservative lane. Analysts with long memories will wonder if early hits against Rubio–such as the water-bottle awkwardness in his State of the Union response, or the effort to paint him as a religious fanatic right after Barack Obama’s re-election–were more effective than they thought at the time. Op-eds to come will dust off one of Jeb Bush’s old attack lines and wonder if Rubio was too much like Obama for the 2016 GOP’s taste.

Many of those factors came into play, but every analyst or advocate who fails to mention the immigration iceberg in Rubio’s Titanic career deserves the same public humiliation that Rubio has called down on himself.