The press wrote this script a very long time ago: Senator Marco Rubio could become the favored establishment candidate in the Republican Party primary as party elites search for answers to the insurgent campaigns of outsiders Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz.
That note has been hit especially hard in the press since the Trump circus arrived on the campaign trail last summer: The GOP is hoping for a tempered, pragmatic savior who can appeal to mainstream voters and help Republicans avoid disaster come November. ("Allowing Trump to have its nomination would saddle Republicans with the worst nominee any party has had in decades," wrote Jonathan Chait at New York.)
Rubio's third-place finish in the Iowa caucus has only cemented that claim, with the press essentially anointing him the Iowa winner. He "may have won the establishment credibility he needs to stay near the top of the Republican presidential race for the long-term," according to CNN. Reuters agreed, crowning "Florida Senator Marco Rubio and the Republican establishment" as one of the big Iowa winners on the GOP side.
But what happens when the facts change but the script does not? What happens when a so-called Establishment candidate like Rubio starts espousing ugly, divisive rhetoric that's synonymous with the darker regions of Fox News and the Republican Party? What happens when he adopts radical policy positions that just years ago would have been seen as borderline even for AM talk radio? (i.e. Outlawing abortions even for victims of rape and incest.)
In other words, what happens when Rubio takes a very hard right turn and obliterates meaningful differences between himself and Trump? Between himself and Cruz? Don't calming, feel-good code words like Establishment then become irrelevant and misleading?
I don't think there's any doubt that, overall, Rubio has benefited from very generous press coverage. Whether it's the sweeping conclusion that he's a "charismatic" communicator, the media happily running with his campaign's spin that it essentially won in Iowa by finishing third, or the press' steadfast refusal to delve deeply into the senator's questionable finances, watching Rubio at the Republican debate last year attack the press as a liberal super PAC for Democrats was amusing. The truth is, pundits seem to revere him.
One way that affection is displayed is to ignore the substance of Rubio's campaign; to whitewash the extremism now at the base of his pitch. To acknowledge that Rubio occupies the far reaches of the political spectrum, and that he's actually sprinted there in recent months, taints the portrait the press likes to paint of him: establishment savior.
To me, establishment sounds like a placeholder for "moderate." And in the case of Rubio, that's a complete myth.
By placing the Florida senator in that wider establishment lane, pundits and reporters seem to suggest that he's somehow part of a pragmatic Republican wing (does that even exist?) that practices common sense conservatism; that he's separate and above those outlier disrupters like Trump and Cruz who embrace more political chaos.
This week, a New York Times dispatch placed Rubio outside of the Republican "hard right" that seems to be flocking to Trump. Reuters explained what distinguished Rubio from the so-called outside, even though Rubio seemed to agree with Trump and Cruz on so many issues, including their disdain for President Obama: "[Rubio] embedded his criticism within a more optimistic, inclusive message."
But just because an extremist coats his divisiveness in "optimistic" language, doesn't mean the campaign press should play along and portray him as something he's clearly not. And yet ...
Forecasting Rubio's White House chances, FiveThirtyEight recently claimed that Democratic strategists are "terrified to face Rubio in the fall." Why? Because of his establishment ability to broaden the GOP's "appeal with moderates, millennials and Latinos."
"Rubio is aiming to be the GOP candidate with the establishment credibility and broad appeal needed to win in a general election, a unifier who can bring together young, moderate voters, along with conservatives and evangelicals," the Christian Science Monitor reported.
A unifier? Rubio walked away from his one stab at establishment legislating with the immigration reform bill that he, as part of the Gang of Eight, helped shepherd through Congress. But quickly finding himself out step with a rabid Republican base that's adopted anti-immigration as its defining litmus test, Rubio sprinted so far to the right on this issue that not only does he oppose his own reform proposal, he's connecting the issue to the rise of ISIS.
No unity there.
As for Rubio's potential appeal to young voters and moderates, a central part of the media's establishment narrative, the senator's increasingly right-wing agenda certainly raises doubts.
Rubio opposes expanding background checks for gun owners, even though 90 percent of Americans support the measure, as do an overwhelming majority of gun owners and even NRA members. He opposes marriage equality and "believes some kinds of businesses, like wedding photography, should be allowed to turn away gay customers." He doesn't want to increase the minimum wage (even though he thinks it's currently too low). He doesn't believe in climate change.
From PolitiFact [emphasis added]:
Rubio will support anti-abortion legislation that includes an exception for rape and incest, but he prefers that the procedure be illegal even in cases of rape and incest.
It's important to note that in terms of the "Establishment" branding, a string of recent Republican Establishment nominees for president, including Mitt Romney, Sen. John McCain, and George W. Bush, all agreed that allowing abortions to be legal in the case of rape and incest was the best approach. Rubio, though, has broken from that model and staked out a far more radical stance.
And when Trump proposed banning all Muslims from entering America, Rubio seemed to out-flank him in the fevered swamps, at least initially. "It's not about closing down mosques," he soon told Fox News' Megyn Kelly. "It's about closing down anyplace -- whether it's a cafe, a diner, an internet site -- anyplace where radicals are being inspired." (Rubio later said Trump hadn't thought through his Muslim ban.)
Overall? "He's been Trumped," noted Peter Beinart at The Atlantic.
There may still be an establishment candidate lurking in the Republican field who can try to save the party from its own extremism, but based on the media's apparent definition of Establishment, Rubio isn't that person.