Marcio Rubio and the ‘existential death struggle’

     Susan Mielbrecht of Moultonboro, N.H., wears a hologram of Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. while attending a town hall meeting in Laconia, N.H., Wednesday Feb. 3, 2016. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo)

    Susan Mielbrecht of Moultonboro, N.H., wears a hologram of Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. while attending a town hall meeting in Laconia, N.H., Wednesday Feb. 3, 2016. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo)

    Back when Bill Clinton was a young pup on the way up, his deft gift for shifting positions earned him the nickname Slick Willie. But here in the 21st century, the torch has been passed to a new generation. Now we’ve got Morphing Marco.

    Marco Rubio is clearly the Republican story du jour, thanks to the third-place Iowa finish that he promptly sought to spin into a big win. (In Iowa last August he said, “We don’t run to finish in second or third place anywhere,” but if you think that what he said then should’ve governed his reaction to finishing third, you don’t know Marco.) Now he’s in New Hampshire for Tuesday’s critical primary, hoping to become the “establishment” alternative to the loathsome twosome, Trump and Cruz.

    The fight for the “establishment” mantle – among Rubio, John Kasich, Chris Christie, and Jeb! Bush, is increasingly fierce. A former state GOP chairman calls it “an existential death struggle” – with good reason, because if Trump wins New Hampshire (as indicated by the semi-reliable polls), the lowest-finishing “establishment” candidates are road kill. Especially cash-strapped Christie, who’d likely be buried two weeks hence when the race moves to South Carolina.

    But what’s most noteworthy – some might call it depressing – is how degraded the GOP’s “establishment” label has become. That’s why I keep putting air quotes around the word. There once was a time when, by definition, an establishment Republican candidate was someone with a somewhat moderate sensibility. But the Republican needle has lurched so far to the right – abetted in this race by Trump-Cruz’s bigoted, xenophobic bile – that “establishment” and “moderate” no longer connote centrism in any traditional sense.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    When Rubio asserts, as he often does, that he’s the candidate who can best unite the disparate Republican factions (right-wing Christians, tea-partyers, war hawks, xenophobes, business types, etc.), I believe him. Because the guy is a silver-tongued shape-shifter who has rhetorical fairy dust for every Republican faction. Within the “establishment” quartet, he’s the best at hoisting a wet finger to the wind.

    He launched his national career as a tea-partying insurgent, morphed into a frosh senator who sensibly supported immigration reform (pleasing the party’s business wing), then fled reform when it became clear that grassroots conservatives hated the idea. He’s still trying to fudge his flip-flop, typically by seguing into his stump speech paeans to the American dream – not a bad tactic, because his soaring flights of rhetoric tend to make people forget the fudge.

    Back in 2013, when xenophobic Republicans tried to use the Boston Marathon bombing as a pretext for curbing legal immigration, Rubio said: “We should really be very cautious about using language that links these two things in any way.” That same year, when interviewed by Time magazine, he said that his mother had told him, “Don’t mess with the immigrants, my son…They’re human beings just like us, and they came for the same reasons we came. To work. To improve their lives. So please, don’t mess with them.” But this winter, he’s using fear of terrorism as a pretext to curb legal immigration: “The entire system of legal immigration must now be reexamined for security first.”

    He launched his presidential campaign with an upbeat, optimistic tone (“I know some people go around talking about making America great again,” but he said that, even now, “America is great”) – only to morph this winter into a Trump-Cruz clone, insisting that America is no longer great: “This country is changing. It feels different. We feel like we’re being left behind and left out.”

    An upbeat candidate would concede that the current president loves his country and has good intentions. But Rubio, now in downbeat mode, claims that “Barack Obama has deliberately weakened America.” There’s no evidence Obama has “deliberately” done any such thing, but, among grassroots conservatives, that dark ‘tude is an article of faith. And lately, sure enough, Rubio has been ramping up the faith talk: “Our goal is eternity, the ability to live alongside our Creator and for all time, to accept the free gift of salvation offered to us by Jesus Christ.” (He morphs on religion too. At one time he converted to Mormonism; today he regularly attends a Catholic church and a Protestant church.)

    To get himself Correct with religious conservatives, Rubio totally opposes abortion, even for the victims of rape and incest. But since he knows that his extremism is generally unpalatable – according to Gallup, only 19 percent of Americans want abortion to be “illegal in all circumstances” – he occasionally says he has supported anti-abortion Senate bills that exempt victims of rape and incest. Which basically means that he’s willing to vote tactically while hewing to his extremist convictions.

    So if Rubio is anointed by New Hampshire as the top “moderate” “establishment” candidate, bear in mind that those labels are merely synonyms for Trump-Cruz lite; and that Rubio is merely the slickest marketer of the GOP’s ever-rightward mindset. Rubio was even endorsed yesterday by Rick Santorum (the latest extremist dropout) and Freedom Caucus leader Matt Salmon (whose House crew is to the right of Paul Ryan). Yup, those guys are on board with Morphing Marco. Nuff said.



    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

    Read more here:
    Read more here:

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal