U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s practiced statesmanship came to an abrupt end at Thursday’s Republican debate televised by CNN. Failing to win a single state, and his candidacy facing serious peril, Rubio traded his reputation as an eloquent policy wonk for a sudden transformation into Donald Trump Jr.
Bombast and bullying work for Trump, because that’s been his persona from the start. When Rubio – and to a lesser degree, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz – attempted to emulate The Donald, their pandering to the lowest common denominator was obvious and jarring.
As one observer said afterwards, Rubio looked like Donald’s annoying little brother, jumping up and down, hurling insults and grinning incessantly as his eyes darted around the crowd like a child begging for attention from the adults. Trump swatted him away and said to Rubio and Cruz, “Keep swinging. Swing for the fences.”
Rubio has kept swinging. So has Cruz, whose latest attack is to suggest that Trump’s tax returns might show dealings with the Mafia. I’m not kidding. But Rubio’s sudden about face has been the more transparent of the two.
Apparently convinced by his handlers that Desperation Day has arrived, Rubio spent the weekend leading up to Super Tuesday sinking lower and lower. He suggested that Trump might have peed his pants during the latest debate. He said Trump should sue somebody for his face. He made fun of the size of Trump’s hands and, of course, his hair.
It was as though the aliens from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” had wrapped Rubio in one of their icky pods and replaced him with a clone programmed with a digital version of “1,000 Insults for Any Occasion.”
Sure, Trump traded insult for insult over the weekend, but again, that’s his shtick and always has been. Love him or hate him, Trump is true to his nature. Trump’s detractors complain that he has turned the Republican primary into a circus. He has not. Politics has always been a circus. Did anyone not realize it before? Governing is serious, but politicking is ridiculous.
Trump has taken the joke that has long been the presidential nominating process to its most logical extreme. The joke, or “con” as Rubio puts it now, is not on his supporters, as some suggest. His supporters are in on the joke. Trump and his Trumpeteers are purposely making a mockery of the process, and enjoying every rally, every outrageous statement, every insult along the way.
How amazing is it for a candidate to so successfully crawl under the skin of a former world leader? When Mexico’s Vincente Fox went on television to respond to Trump and say Mexico was “not going to pay for that (expletive) wall – he should pay for it,” Trump had to be rolling in the aisle of Trump Force One.
Trump even got into a fight with the pope! The pope said Trump’s idea for a wall was not Christian. Trump feigned outrage, and repeated that the Bible is his favorite book. He suggested that he gets audited so much because the IRS knows he’s a strong Christian. I laughed out loud, and I think Trump could barely avoid laughing, too.
Over the weekend, the media tried to trap Trump with one of those phony “repudiation” exchanges. This is where a candidate is supported by someone whose endorsement no one wants – in this case the Ku Klux Klan – and then the media demands to know if the candidate repudiates it Most candidates fall for the trap and trip all over themselves to make sure everyone knows how strongly they disavow the endorsement.
Trump decided not to play by the usual rules. He knows it’s a no-win. If he says he disavows it, the headlines will say, “Trump disavows KKK endorsement,” which still accomplishes the media’s goal of connecting Trump and the KKK in the same headline. So he feigned ignorance about it all, which drove the media and his opponents crazy, again, although Trump finally Tweeted, “I disavow,” giving it the minimal attention it deserved.
We’ve heard all the attacks and warnings. Trump is not really a conservative. Trump is a bully. Trump is not specific about his policies. All true. And what no one can figure out is why he keeps winning. The experts are in denial that so far most Republican voters – evangelicals, conservatives, moderates, men, women – are tired of politicians who sound like politicians.
Despite what he says, Donald Trump is not a conservative or a liberal or a moderate. He is not pro-life or pro-choice. He is not pro-family values or anti-family values. Social issues and ideological labels are not his concern, and his supporters from across all spectrums understand that.
So what is Trump? He is pro-America, and he’s a dealmaker. Where you see him at his most believable is when he talks about trade imbalances, domestic economic issues, jobs, illegal immigration and terrorism. If elected, those are the areas where he will focus. In the meantime, he has to participate in the game, and everyone knows it’s a game, but his critics are confounded by the different rules Trump has invented. No one told us the rules were changing!
So low has the bar been set in an effort to declare some sort of victory for someone besides Trump that the latest spin is that if Cruz can win Texas, it’s a great victory. If Rubio can pick up a few delegates, it’s game on.
If Cruz can win Texas? His home state? It was once a given that a candidate in a primary would win his or her own state. Now it’s being touted as a big victory if Cruz can do it. Same for Rubio and Gov. John Kasich in Florida and Ohio, respectively, although recent polls show both losing to Trump on their home turf.
The greatest compliment Marco Rubio could pay to Trump was to try to become more like him. He tried, and we’ll see what Tuesday brings. If he starts winning, his supporters can thank Donald Trump for the creation of the nation’s newest insult comic, Marco Rubio. Move over, Don Rickles.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.