One of the unlikely stars of the post-Parkland political debate over gun violence has been longtime Second Amendment maximalist and NRA money hole Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). His high-profile role in this debate is due in part to the fact that he’s softened some of his stances on gun rights, but for the most part, people are talking about Rubio because he keeps getting relentlessly and savagely owned by the Florida teenagers who are leading the movement to curb gun violence.
The student leaders of the Parkland movement are accurately and pointedly attacking Rubio as a tool of the gun lobby. They’ve demonstrated absolutely zero faith that Rubio -- whatever he says in public -- can be counted on as an ally in their cause. And it’s clear that they are not about to be mollified by his quarter-steps away from gun-rights absolutism.
For some conservative pundits, this is a preposterous and altogether unconscionable defamation of Rubio’s character. At The Daily Beast, Matt Lewis complains that Florida’s junior senator is being unfairly attacked, observing that “there’s something about Marco Rubio that people just seem to hate” and that “it’s impossible to know, for sure,” what it is. There’s “something” all right, but it’s not some indefinable aspect of Rubio’s character that inspires such opprobrium. In fact, the reasons for the mistrust and anger directed at Rubio are easily identified; it’s just that certain conservatives choose not to recognize them.
There is no mystery to who Rubio is or how he operates. The senator and those who support him eagerly promote the idea that he represents the next generation of conservative leadership: a youthful political phenom whose heritage, life story, and political talent put him on a steeply rising arc toward greatness. That, at least, was how Rubio campaigned for the White House in 2016, and he got smoked. The reason he got smoked is because that flimsy construct couldn’t conceal the relentlessly ambitious fraud that stood behind it.
Take, for example, Rubio’s position on immigration. Lewis credits Rubio for having “worked hard to pass bipartisan immigration reform in 2013, taking on the role of selling the bill to conservative talk radio.” When Rubio “determined that the bill didn’t have a chance of making its way through the House, he walked away--a move that is hardly impractical but was nevertheless interpreted as cowardice,” Lewis added. That’s about as sanitized a retelling of Rubio’s history with the 2013 immigration reform bill as one could offer.
Rubio did work to pass the legislation. He did those talk radio hits and pushed for border security amendments to make the bill more palatable to House conservatives. Then, almost immediately after the bill passed the Senate, he dropped the issue entirely and began blaming President Barack Obama for its floundering in the House. Rather than use what influence he had to twist arms and convince enough House GOP colleagues to join with Democrats in support of a bill that he called “the right thing for our country,” Rubio recognized how politically exposed his right flank was and tried to worm his way out of danger.
When it came time for Rubio to position himself for a White House run, he started pushing a self-serving and dishonest history of the immigration bill in which he was a prophetic critic of flawed legislation that he never believed would become law. Under attack from Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, he lurched hard to the right and tried to posture as a hard-line immigration opponent. The only consistency in Rubio’s persistent squirming on immigration was that he adopted whatever position he felt best served his ambition at that moment.
This is a defining feature of the Rubio experience. As a presidential candidate, Rubio proudly identified as a #NeverTrump conservative, but also pledged to support Donald Trump if he won the nomination. While running for the White House, Rubio made a show of the fact that he wasn’t running for re-election to the Senate, which he lambasted as a sclerotic and ineffective vehicle for change. But shortly after ending his presidential campaign, Rubio discovered that maybe being a senator isn’t so bad after all and decided to run again. To win re-election, he promised Florida voters that he would be a “check and balance” on Trump, but as a senator he’s been a lockstep supporter of the president and an apologist for his self-destructive antics. The closest Rubio came to actually opposing Trump was his high-profile criticism of Rex Tillerson’s nomination as secretary of state. When it came time to vote, Rubio fell in line and voted to confirm.
This is why people pile on Marco Rubio: His many attempts at standing on principle and providing moral leadership have been expeditiously unmade by his own ambition. At this point it’s just good sense to assume that whatever position he holds on gun violence won’t survive the next delicate shift in the political winds. The Rubio faithful, however, choose to view his track record much differently. “Marco Rubio is the living embodiment of a very old maxim,” writes Lewis: “No good deed goes unpunished.”
Conservative pundits who saw Rubio as a transformational leader are still pretending that he’s something other than a vacant opportunist because they don’t really have much choice. Who else but Rubio can serve as the standard bearer for the consultant-class conservatism that Trump’s election revealed was a largely vestigial element of today’s Republican Party? Marco Rubio gets attacked so viciously because pretty much everyone has seen through his bullshit -- except the people who want to believe that the Republican Party they used to know is just a few Marco Moments away from roaring back.