Correcting Marco Rubio's final campaign lie: He wants you to think he ran a high-minded race — don't fall for it

Florida senator wants you to believe he lost because he refused to get in the gutter. The truth is the opposite

Published March 16, 2016 1:42PM (EDT)

Marco Rubio (AP/John Locher)
Marco Rubio (AP/John Locher)

After notching a string of third- and last-place triumphs, Sen. Marco Rubio achieved his most stunning primary victory yet Tuesday night, finishing nearly 20 points behind Donald Trump in Florida, his home state. Riding high after yet another dominant performance, Rubio then went for the jugular by suspending his campaign. Talk about a game-change!

OK, that’s probably enough snark, at least for a little while. Rubio was a lightweight, an opportunist and an extremist, it’s true. But there’s still something a little unseemly about doing the Charleston Shuffle on his campaign’s grave. Especially if we keep in mind the utter toxicity of the man who beat him.

That said, it’d be a whole lot easier to refrain from rubbing salt in the Rubio campaign’s wounds if the candidate’s self-eulogy wasn’t such complete bullshit. And make no mistake, that’s exactly what this revisionist, self-flattering nonsense is:

[F]rom a political standpoint, the easiest thing to have done in this campaign is to jump on all those anxieties I just talked about, to make people angrier, make people more frustrated. But I chose a different route and I'm proud of that.

That would have been -- in a year like this, that would have been the easiest way to win. But that is not what's best for America. The politics of resentment against other people will not just leave us a fractured party, they are going to leave us a fractured nation.

They are going to leave us as a nation where people literally hate each other because they have different political opinions.

The idea that Rubio lost because he insisted on running a high-minded, idealistic, and public-spirited campaign is romantic, I’ll admit. But it also has precious little to do with the truth.

Rubio may have wanted to run a sunny, optimistic, hope-y/change-y campaign at first. It certainly seemed like he wanted to be the Republican Party’s version of circa 2008 Barack Obama. Even during his campaign’s warm and fuzzy period, however, he was still saying angry (check), frustrated (check), and resentful (check) stuff like this:

[Our leaders] have forgotten that when America fails to lead, global chaos inevitably follows, so they appease our enemies, betray our allies and weaken our military.

To declare that the current president “appeases” the nation’s enemies while “betraying” its allies and “weakening” its military is to level a pretty serious charge. But it is somewhat mild by the standards of the 2016 campaign, I’ll admit. It certainly doesn’t approach this kind of divisive, de-legitimizing rhetoric:

It’s now abundantly clear: Barack Obama has deliberately weakened America. He has made an intentional effort to humble us back to size. As if to say: We no longer need to be so powerful because our power has done more harm than good. Happiest of all have been America’s enemies. Because when America steps back, it gives darker forces the space they need to rise. And rise they have.

That second quote, by the way, is also from Rubio. And it wasn’t a slip or an aberration from his feel-good campaign, either. As early as the second week of January, in fact, multiple outlets were reporting that the junior senator’s campaign, nervous about its inability to get much traction, had decided to embrace what the New York Times called a “darker tone.” And we haven’t even gotten to his disastrous attacks on Trump yet.

You could, I suppose, argue that Rubio’s descent into juvenile taunts and name-calling wasn’t the same thing as Trump’s demagoguery. But just because his attacks were laced with (a poor attempt at) humor, that doesn’t mean that they weren’t still playing to his audience’s nastiest instincts. Turning public policy into, literally, a dick-measuring contest doesn’t strike me as taking the higher path.

Even more outrageously, Rubio — not Trump — is the one who responded to President Obama’s delivering an utterly banal speech in a mosque with anger and resentment. Trump made a predictably sleazy joke about Obama being “comfortable” in a mosque; but Rubio didn’t even try to leaven his poison with humor. Instead, he grumbled about Obama “pitting people against each other.” And besides, he added, “radical Islam” was the “bigger issue,” anyway.

So what would a more honest reckoning of Rubio’s campaign sound like? Well, it wouldn’t be pretty. Rather than foundering because he stubbornly chose to appeal exclusively to Republican voters’ better angels, the Rubio campaign failed because he simply wasn’t very good at gutter politics. His attempts to get nasty boomeranged, then blew up in his face.

He didn’t choose “a different path,” in other words. He got right down in the sewer with the rest of ‘em. The only real difference is that, for Rubio, scraping the bottom of the barrel simply didn’t work.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

MORE FROM Elias Isquith

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Barack Obama Donald Trump Election 2016 Gop 2016 Marco Rubio