Marco Rubio started the race for his party’s nomination young. Too young, if you ask Jeb Bush, his political big brother, or if you listen to Donald Trump, as many did. He dubbed him “Little Marco,” and it stuck. On Tuesday night, Rubio suffered the first loss of his storied career and it was a devastating one. Trump whomped him by almost 20 points in his home state.
All political defeats are hard: They’re so public and, at the same time, so personal. Grown men weep. There’s an added hurt in Rubio’s case. He was soundly rejected by the people who used to love him the most.
It would be easy to blame Trump, and in his concession speech Rubio did some of that by deploring a political climate in which “people literally hate each other.”
But, in truth, he was felled by a general disgust with politicians. Rubio won his Senate seat in 2010 as a tea party darling. By 2016, he might as well have been dining nightly with Nancy Pelosi. To the angry base, he had become a Washington elite, in cahoots with Chuck Schumer on immigration to boot.
But Rubio himself is partly to blame. The most heartbreaking losses are the ones we bring on ourselves. He’d had some second-place finishes and had a chance of becoming the establishment candidate after Bush dropped out. But Trump started in on him early, branding him with belittling nicknames and taunts about how much he sweated under pressure.
After weeks of battering, Rubio went on his own rampage and finally got the coverage that had been Trump’s alone. But he came out the worse for it. The press covered his bad joke about Trump having small hands like Howard Dean’s scream. Trump’s retort about his own manhood on stage at the debate was just more of the same.
Then Rubio remembered who he was. While no one’s apologized for any of the atrocities of this dismal campaign year — especially not Trump, who has committed most of them — Rubio offered a mea culpa for the taunts he leveled at Trump. My “kids were embarrassed by it. My wife didn’t like it,” he told Fox’s Megyn Kelly. “That’s not who I am and that’s not what I want to be. Honestly, I want to be a good example. I want my kids to be proud of me.”
But the sunny, optimistic, candidate of generational change never recovered. On a dark night, it’s hard to remember how bright a light Rubio was in his party, the politician Bill Clinton tried to defeat in his race for the Senate fearing he would present the biggest challenge to his wife in her race to be president. He was a Florida legislator at age 29, speaker of the Florida House by 35, a U.S. senator at 39. It went to his head and after four scant years in Washington, he thought he should be president.
Rubio might have had a comeback had he been able to win Florida and its 99 winner-take-all delegates. His fate was sealed when Sen. Ted Cruz, who had no chance of winning the Sunshine State, decided to spoil it for Rubio by announcing that he would compete there. This hurt Cruz in his effort to stop Trump, but it hurt Rubio more.
The week before the March 15 primary, Rubio came to make his last stand in Miami, where he was born, went to school, got married and is raising his children. He brought his best game to the University of Miami debate. He didn’t get personal with Trump but he did get serious, telling the mogul to worry less about political correctness and more about being correct, as he fact-checked his rival in real time.
Without getting down to Trump’s level, he showed up his ignorance on Israel, Cuba and trade. To the dismay of pundits and the audience used to fireworks, there were none. Rubio got very little credit for being an encyclopedia to Trump’s Cliff’s Notes.
While Trump jetted in for one event and otherwise substituted a barrage of negative ads depicting Rubio as a cheating, scheming liar, Rubio spent hours and hours on his red, white and blue bus, traveling the width and length of the state, from the tip of the panhandle in Pensacola to the I-95 corridor, stopping at industrial parks, barbecue joints and coffee shops. However few the customers, he extolled them to vote: “If I win Florida, I’ll be the nominee. If I don’t win Florida, it’ll be much harder.”
The prodigy should have found a well of support in Florida, and nowhere more than in Hialeah, the red hot center of Cuban America. Instead, he found himself a stranger in a strange land. This weekend, rather than facing a cheering crowd of friends filling a high school football stadium, Rubio stood in the end zone with the stands empty and barely enough people listening on the ground to stretch to the 20-yard line. His wife Jeanette, with four children at home, rarely campaigns, but she was there for ballast.
As Rubio barnstormed from early morning to late at night, he grew more reflective. The tale of how the son of a Cuban bartender and hotel maid rose to the U.S. Senate is a cliche by now, but it didn’t sound that way when it was told by a bone-tired candidate grieving for what might have been.
He made his last campaign speech on Monday night at a West Miami park where he played basketball as a kid. He recalled winning his first race for city commissioner. His mike broke, so he picked up a bullhorn, speaking in English and Spanish, hundreds of his neighbors cheering and chanting his name,
Rubio was once again the natural he used to be. Anger never became him and toward the end, he dropped it for an elegiac optimism. “No matter where I go or where I’ll be, I’ll always be the son of this community,” Rubio said. “I’ll always carry with me the hopes and dreams of generations who have made possible the dreams of mine.”
Rubio was the only candidate to depart from party orthodoxy that directs every candidate to pledge to support the ticket. “It’s getting harder every day to justify that statement to myself, to my children, to my family, and to the people that support me,” Rubio said. If he has set the bar for the other candidate to say as much, he will leave the race with honor.