There was a Florida Senate debate Monday night between Marco Rubio and Patrick Murphy. And in Rubio's opening statement, which lasted only 72 seconds, he made clear the yawning gap between the story Republicans wanted to tell to a skeptical public in this 2016 campaign and the one Donald Trump is telling. Here it is (pay particular attention to the first 45-ish seconds):
This is the key bit:
I am the son of a bartender and a maid who were immigrants from the island of Cuba. If they had gone to almost any other nation on this planet, there is no way I would be standing on a stage like this tonight. I have a debt to this country I will never fully repay. But I have chosen to try to repay a part of it through public service.
If you watched any of the Republican presidential campaign, you have heard Rubio tell his origin story — and you may even roll your eyes at it.
But consider that story and message when compared with Trump's story — the election is rigged, the media is biased, I didn't assault any women — on the campaign trail these days. Rubio's personal story speaks to a fundamental belief in the country that you can be anyone you want to be if you work hard enough. Rubio's is a positive story about what makes America exceptional — as told through the lens of his own personal experience. There is tremendous oratorical power in this line: “I have a debt to this country I will never fully repay.”
Now, imagine Trump uttering anything like that line. Not only would he not do it but even if he tried it's hard to imagine that he could sell it as genuine. Trump's success — as he envisions it — is entirely sui generis. It's not about a country that allows greatness to rise to the top but rather about his sheer smarts, force of will and negotiating ability. The greatness Trump is selling is tied to Trump's own ability to be great — not to some broader belief in the country's inherent exceptionalism or greatness.
The Tampa Bay Times's Adam Smith has written smartly about the contrast between Rubio and Trump, too. In a piece headlined “Imagine the tenor of 2016 with Marco Rubio as the GOP nominee,” Smith writes this about Rubio's remarks at a Republican dinner over the weekend:
Imagine how different things could have been if they nominated Rubio for president instead of Donald Trump.
Instead of a nominee talking about America as if it were heaving its last, dying gasps, they would hear optimism and idealism.
“Let there be no doubt that we are an extraordinary nation,” U.S. Sen. Rubio said, acknowledging the deluge of bad news at home and abroad lately. “Yes America has problems. It has more problems than it should because of eight years of Barack Obama. But ask yourself this question: Who would you rather be? What nation on Earth would you trade places with right now? Would you rather be China? Would you rather be any other nation on Earth?”
Even Hillary Clinton's campaign thought so. Her top aides feared his potential, according to newly released Clinton campaign emails from WikiLeaks.
Now, Rubio didn't win — for plenty of reasons. He choked at an absolutely critical moment — a debate just before the New Hampshire primary — and repeatedly came across as overly rehearsed. He got down in the mud with Trump and came out dirty. He was never able to convince the GOP establishment — at least in the early days of voting — that he was the candidate they needed to line up behind.
And, if Rubio had become the party's nominee, he would undoubtedly have his own problems, problems that Trump might not have.
The fundamental core appeal of Rubio — his story and the way he tells it — is much more where the Republican Party needs to head if it wants to be a majority party in the country going forward.
For a party that needs to build outward rather than retreat inward — based solely on the demographic trends in the country — Rubio's message is simply a better one. It's also not the one that voters outside Florida will hear much of over the final three weeks of this campaign.