He was the candidate so perfect for 2016 that it seemed he had been built somewhere in some kind of political lab. Well, that's the way it seemed until the 2016 election cycle actually began.
In a move anticipated in the political press for much of the last two weeks, Rubio suspended his campaign for the White House on Tuesday night after losing his home state of Florida by double digits. But what many will miss is this: Rubio's campaign that was billed as that of a refreshing new voice and generation of multi-cultural Republican thought and leadership never quite delivered on that promise.
For those accustomed to watching of multi-generational millionaires compete for the White House, Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, had the kind of story that could both inspire and confound. But Rubio also spent much of his time raising money and building support at country clubs, with older Republicans and those who wanted to hear him embrace and defend most of the very same Republican ideas that voters heard from the GOP nominee in 2012 and 2008. Rubio, the 2016 candidate, was largely the man with old ideas in a new package. And, in truth, that attempt to be all things, both young and old, new and the same, appears to have doomed Rubio's campaign.
What follows is a partial summary of the life and death of the 11-month-old Rubio campaign.
Rubio officially declared himself a candidate for the GOP's presidential nomination telling an audience that he was the man to lead the country in the early years of a new century which, with the right choices, could be a "New American Century." Rubio told Americans that day and almost every day since that he was a real self-made man -- the son of an immigrant maid and bartender -- but he never really offered a different economic message for the GOP, despite playing up his own economic struggles. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post reported at the time that Rubio's attempt to please both sides left him with no natural constituency, but rather one that would have to be built, voter by voter. But, unlike other candidates, at least Rubio did not have a long list of sworn political enemies.
Two other problems for Rubio became clear. He had decided to take on his one-time mentor, former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R), and vie for the Republican presidential nomination. But he couldn't quite bring himself to distinguish his views from Bush's when it came to issues such as the Iraq war. That month, Rubio gave a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations indicating that he too was a hawk among hawks. He believed that displays of strength and military might were a form of peacekeeping and would govern accordingly. And then, when asked directly by Fox News about his seemingly different answers about the wisdom of the conflict in Iraq at different times he didn't exactly offer a clear and convincing response. It was not demonstrably better than the trouble Bush was having with similar questions. For Rubio, this marked, at the very least, a squandered opportunity to distinguish himself among the Republican establishment candidates and offer the public a clear critique of an unpopular war and the president responsible for it, George W. Bush, the brother of Jeb. And then, there was that New York Times story detailing the many, many ways in which Rubio and his family had benefited personally and politically from the patronage of a single wealthy auto dealer. A smiling image of Rubio with his benefactor ran above the story.
The Rubio campaign faced another pair of New York Times stories detailing first the Rubio household's driving record and joint traffic ticket history, and then a relatively deep dive into Rubio's personal finances. Reporters found evidence of some trouble and some potentially unwise decisions. There had been three home purchases in a relatively short period of time, some spending on luxury items such as a boat and a cashed-out retirement savings account. The latter flies in the face of the advice given by most financial advisers and carries heavy tax penalties. There was also the previously told story of his personal expenses -- ultimately reimbursed -- put on Rubio's Republican Party credit card and expenses related to his political work for which he sought reimbursement from two sources. Rubio told reporters he had failed to be as careful as he should have been when it came to bookkeeping, but that there was nothing more to the stories. Several weeks would pass before Rubio also began telling reporters that he, unlike others in the race, was not born to wealth. He needed bigger houses for his young and growing family, felt that his family had -- via hard work -- earned some luxuries such a a boat and private school for the kids. It was a story with which many Americans with limited savings can likely identify.
This was a month filled with news that a candidate like Rubio hopes for. Rubio was on the campaign trail, generating lots of local news stories and picking up endorsements in early states. Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were reportedly among a short list of candidates invited to spend time with 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his family over the Fourth of July. He delivered a big speech in Chicago where he spelled out what he sees as what ails the American economy and what he described as solutions that would aid and benefit the middle and working class -- not just the rich or poor. Politifact said Rubio's characterization wasn't quite accurate in that his tax proposals included some healthy savings for those at the very top of the nation's income and wealth ladders. And some of Rubio's remarks about the Cuban embargo drew open derision and there were reports that Rubio was struggling to tap some of the donors who helped him get elected to the Senate because they were backing another Floridian, Jeb Bush, in the 2016 presidential race.
Sill, July was kind of, sort of, a good month in Rubioville. He dispatched a much-retweeted note on Twitter critiquing the amount of public outrage over the death of Cecil the Lion and bemoaning what he views as the absence of outrage about aborted fetuses and Planned Parenthood's role. And he told reporters that Donald Trump's remarks about Sen. John McCain perhaps not being a war hero were so utterly inappropriate that they amounted to verbal disqualifiers. In retrospect, Rubio was more than a little bit wrong about that. But he ranks among the small set of 2016 Republican candidates on the record critiquing Trump, his public comments and fitness for office long before that was standard fare.
When August rolled around, it brought with it the GOP's first presidential primary debate -- a forum that generally plays to Rubio's strengths. And Rubio said some things about the future and his unique ability to help to craft a good one for this country that had some pundits calling him the out-and-out winner. Rubio displayed some of his trying-to-be-all-things-to-all-Republicans thing. Rubio, as Bloomberg put it, tried to sell himself as the candidate with just enough sense and experience to do the job but not so much that he's been tainted by Washington-itis. He talked about the country in both glowing and dire terms. And he tried to avoid discussing his role in getting an immigration reform package through the Senate in 2013 and demonstrate some empathy for voters who feel frustrated and angry about immigration.
News operations with the reach of CNN were still calling Rubio a political "natural" -- the ideal candidate for the GOP in 2016 (or out of the wreckage of 2012) and lots of other superlatives. And Rubio seemed to have figured out a way to be the young guy from humble beginnings and a true GOP loyalist in a way that he believed distinguished him from the crowded Republican field. While Republican contenders like Carly Fiorina and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said publicly that they saw no role for the federal government in encouraging employers to provide paid family leave time after the birth of a child or to care for a sick relative, Rubio introduced a plan very Republican in its structure but far from an embrace of small government and limited regulation. It aimed to encourage employers to provide paid family leave with tax incentives. But it captured some attention outside the party too, because it was structured in such a way that paid family leave could become an option for part-time workers too.
When the GOP's October debate rolled around, Rubio again faced questions about his personal finances. On a debate stage, Rubio tried to brush off Trump's claims that Rubio was the kind of man who couldn't be trusted with a credit card, much less the country. (Does anyone else think that this is when Rubio started thinking very sharp but accurate thoughts on exactly how Donald Trump became a wealthy man? No? Well imagine how you might feel if a man who inherited wealth said that to you on national TV.) In the moment, lots of reporters thought Rubio tried to duck the relevance of his finances and what, if anything they tell voters about his readiness to lead the country. He claimed the stories were nothing more than a bi-product of liberal media bias. In reality the Times stories stood up to plenty of scrutiny and reporting from the Tampa Bay Times and other publications went further.
In November, Fortune magazine described Rubio as the big-business -- or rather, the big-business-friendly -- candidate who seemed likely to outlast the community's seeming natural ally, former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R). It was one more seal of approval that might have mattered a great deal to Republican voters in other election cycles. But, it didn't seem to matter much to Republican voters this time around. His polling numbers started to creep up, but he still didn't look like a front-runner. There were even some journalists asking if Rubio had the capacity to win a single primary -- a question that would wind up being fortuitous (if you don't include the Puerto Rico primary).
In January, Rubio's poll numbers ebbed slightly, as Trump's continued lead shocked the political world. But on Feb. 1, Rubio finished a surprise third in Iowa and looked to ride that momentum into the coming states and secure the "establishment lane." Then the debate happened. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie hit Rubio for repeating a line about how President Obama knew what he was doing. Rubio repeated the line even after Christie called him out. Rubio was accused of being robotic, over-rehearsed and presumably unable to think quickly on his feet. He finished dismal fifth in New Hampshire.
Things looked far better by the middle of the month, when fellow GOP rising star and Republican of color, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley endorsed Rubio, sparking conversations in some Republican corners about Rubio-Haley ticket and the threat such a team might pose to Democrats. But Rubio lost South Carolina (finishing second), and then lost a series of primary contests by larger margins, each and every time putting a good face on his loss.
The situation was enough to morph the once remarkably polite Rubio campaign into a much more aggressive team that was ready, willing and able to taunt the front-runner, Trump, any time and in any way possible. Rubio's comments about Trump's small hands, bladder control and business track record were certainly memorable. Rubio's newfound campaign attitude spilled over into the next debate. Rubio plainly told viewers that Trump had inherited tremendous wealth and without it would be selling (presumably knock-off) watches on a street corner in Manhattan. The implication: That's a profession befitting a man Rubio had taken to calling a "con artist." The change made little difference at the polls that followed. And Rubio himself has said that his children were embarrassed by his campaign's turn toward the scatological. Rubio's primary performance didn't improve; in fact, it appeared to get worse.
Over the weekend before Tuesday's primaries, in what Rubio almost certainly knew were going to be some of the final days of his campaign, he made a remarkably frank emotional plea for Americans to vote for someone -- anyone -- besides Trump and warned of dire national consequences if Trump's campaign is successful. Rubio spoke about potential damage to America, not just the Republican Party. "There's a broader issue that happens in our political culture in this country and this is what happens when a leading presidential candidate goes around feeding into a narrative of anger and bitterness and frustration. I think that we all need to take a step back and ask ourselves if we are contributing to this, because if this continues, I do think this county will be ripped apart at the seams, and we will be incapable of solving any of the major issues that we have." Rubio warned that the country is careening away from the habit of settling differences at the ballot box. Rubio called what's happening "grotesque," and specifically said that the front-runner in his own party was largely to blame. A video of Rubio's comments was interesting enough that more than 500,000 people watched it online in three days.
And undoubtedly, some Republican establishment types will be left to wonder, is that the Rubio they wanted to see all along? Tuesday's results suggest he still didn't get it quite right.