“This is the moment they said would never happen!” said a triumphant Marco Rubio in his victory speech last night in Iowa. It was an odd thing to say, coming from a guy who just came in third, after all the polls showed him running…third. And while he didn’t specify who “they” were, that kind of vague “they” usually refers to the powers that be, the hidebound thinkers of the political and media elite. Which is also odd, because those are the people who have always been most enthusiastic about Rubio.
If all the attention in the GOP presidential primary will now narrow down to three candidates — Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump — there’s no question who the choice of the Republican establishment (and yes, I know it’s a problematic term, but it does refer to something real) will be. After panicking for weeks about the race coming down to a choice between an erratic billionaire with no commitment to the party and an insurgent ideologue even other Republicans find loathsome, Rubio offers the only way out, the party’s best chance of avoiding disaster in the fall.
So we’re upon another “Here comes Marco Rubio!” boomlet, even though it’s based on almost nothing other than the fact that he somehow “exceeded expectations” by coming in exactly where everyone expected him to in Iowa, albeit with a few more points of support than polls had shown. As I argued yesterday, when someone does better than expectations, it doesn’t tell us much about them; it just tells us that those doing the expecting were wrong. But no matter — today’s headlines tell us of “Marco Rubio’s very big night in Iowa,” to “Forget Ted Cruz: Marco Rubio is the big winner of the Iowa caucuses,” that “After Iowa, keep your eye on Marco Rubio, not Trump or Cruz,” and “Why the Iowa caucus was a win for Marco Rubio, even though he lost to Ted Cruz.”
Cruz told NBC: “I’m amused at listening to media talk about ‘what an impressive third place finish!'” But since Cruz portrays himself as the scourge of both the media and political elite, it’s probably fine by him. He’ll now get to say that he’s the insurgent and Rubio represents the establishment, which in addition to tapping into the Republican electorate’s mood of disillusionment will have the virtue of being true.
The Republican establishment knows that Rubio looks like the most electable candidate — he’s not a loose cannon like Trump and not a bitter ideologue like Cruz. And as Michael Brendan Dougherty argues, “Rubio’s candidacy is essentially based on the premise that nothing from the George W. Bush era has to change for the Republican Party,” that even though he may look different, he’s offering the same policy prescription as ever: tax cuts for the wealthy, an interventionist foreign policy, and a hard right line on social issues. Also, unlike Cruz, Rubio doesn’t spend all his time lambasting Washington Republicans for being a bunch of traitorous weaklings.
But why would the supposedly liberal media think so highly of Rubio? To begin with, let’s not kid ourselves: they do. He’s not personally repellent or drawn to kamikaze tactics, like Cruz, and he’s not crazy, like Trump. Rubio is a good speaker, is pretty informed about policy, and has a heartwarming personal story about about his immigrant parents. When those journalists and commentators say so, and write stories describing how Rubio’s campaign is about to blossom, they’re expressing their faith in the process. Regardless of their personal ideology, they’d like to believe that this whole chaotic mess eventually winds up in a somewhat rational place. If the GOP nominates Rubio, it’s proof that the process works and one of our two great parties has not completely lost its mind.
How does that square with all the attention given to Donald Trump? Trump pulls the media in two different directions. On one hand, he’s an irresistible story, a compelling personality who constantly says appallingly newsworthy things and drives his opponents crazy. We’ve loved reporting on him and writing about him. It’s been a hoot. But on the other hand, were Trump to actually win, it would show that the system can be hacked, that a kind of lunacy had taken over, that the worst kind of demagoguery and the shallowest kind of celebrity can combine to hijack what is supposed to be a relatively orderly and predictable process. And to people who care about politics, whatever their personal beliefs about issues, that would be a disturbing result.
So whether they’re consciously aware of it or not, most people in the media would probably prefer Trump to fall eventually, after we’ve all been thoroughly entertained by his candidacy. Rubio as the GOP nominee might not be as much fun, but it makes sense.
We’ve been through this before. Four months ago, we witnessed the sudden emergence of articles predicting that Rubio was about to rise. Unfortunately for him, the voters didn’t get the memo; in the average of national polls he stands at 10 percent, not too far from where he’s been all along. Maybe now that the voting has started and other candidates have begun falling away, Rubio will gain support and even win a primary somewhere. But at the moment, outside of Iowa, he’s still the candidate of the elites, not the voters.