Editor's note: "As Florida goes, so goes the nation." It was true in 2000, again in 2008, and just last week we were assured by statistics whiz Nate Silver that Florida will again be a – if not the – deciding state in this year's presidential election. With that in mind, we're launching a new political column this week with an eye on the national scene and a heart in Florida. Legends of the Fall will follow the players and the plays as we stumble toward the Nov. 2 election.
"We're about to turn over the conservative movement to a person who has no ideas of any substance on the important issues. The nuclear codes of the United States to an erratic individual, and the conservative movement to someone who has spent a career sticking it to working people. ... I would much more prefer not to turn the party over to a con artist like Donald Trump." – Marco Rubio, Feb. 26
"We have got to come together as a party. We cannot lose to Hillary Clinton. We cannot lose the White House. We have to make sure Donald Trump wins this election." – Marco Rubio, Aug. 1
This has, without question, been the worst week of Donald Trump's presidential campaign. It may well be the worst week for any presidential campaign ever.
It started last month in Philadelphia. There, at the end of a superbly choreographed Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton taunted Trump: "A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons." (Predictably, Trump responded the next day with a Twitter rant.)
More devastating, though, was when Gold Star parent Khizr Khan lit Trump up over his proposed Muslim ban: "Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of the brave patriots who died defending America – you will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one."
Trump, a narcissist, responded as a narcissist would: "I think I've made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard." He then accused Khan of being a Clinton puppet and suggested that Khan wouldn't let his wife speak during the DNC. (Later, a longtime Trump adviser began peddling a conspiracy theory that Khan was a Muslim Brotherhood agent.)
Things spiraled downward from there. First, Trump appeared not to know that Russia had invaded Crimea in 2014. He suggested Clinton had conspired with the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates to rig the debate schedule. A decades-old nude pic of his wife graced the front cover of the New York Post. The New York Times reported on how Trump avoided the Vietnam draft. The next day, after a veteran gave his Purple Heart to Trump, Trump said he'd "always wanted" one, but getting it this way was "much easier." Then, after their criticism of his Khan comments, Trump refused to endorse Sen. John McCain and House Speaker Paul Ryan in their respective primaries.
Polls showed Clinton amassing a huge lead. Prominent Republicans, including Hewlett Packard executive Meg Whitman and U.S. Rep. Richard Hanna, R-New York, endorsed Clinton. Trump's staff was reported to be "suicidal"; there was talk in GOP circles about an "intervention" and perhaps mass defections.
Which brings me to Marco Rubio – or "Little Marco," as Trump derided him during the Republican primary. Florida's junior senator and former state House Speaker was not so long ago considered a rising star in the party. He was smart, we were told, a wonk who understood the nuances of policy, an optimistic conservative who could bring Hispanics into the fold. And many observers expected him to win the nomination.
But he didn't win. He instead got humiliated, losing even his home state to a man he called a "con artist."
The truth is, Little Marco was always a vacuous hack, an unaccomplished politician willing to discard his supposedly deeply held beliefs to further his political ambition. Look no further than his 180 on immigration reform: In 2013, he was a foremost advocate for giving undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship, and sponsored a bill to do just that; a few months later, after the party's base turned on him, he was urging Republicans not to endorse his own bill. By August 2014, he was calling for the deportation of DREAMers, too.
So when Marco spoke back in February about the dangers of empowering a temperamentally unfit huckster with nuclear weapons, you knew that his #NeverTrump posturing was only that – posturing. You knew that, should circumstances make it to his perceived benefit, he would dislodge his spine and grovel before his new master.
As New York magazine noted: "Perhaps we should have paid more attention to the fact that Rubio's campaign page advertising the '#NeverTrump' bumper sticker used the word removable. Twice."
After saying in May that he would support Trump at the Republican convention, Rubio then announced in early July that he wouldn't attend his former rival's coronation. But then he reversed course (sort of) again, taping a video for the convention. "Unlike Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump is committed to cut taxes, curb spending and get our national debt under control," he told delegates. (Reality check: Trump has proposed the biggest infrastructure investment ever, with no plans for how to pay for it, and experts say his tax cuts would send the deficit into the stratosphere.)
In Davenport late last month, Rubio called Trump a "good guy." His first TV ad touted his opposition to Syrian refugees – quintessential Trumpism. And then on Saturday, July 30, Rubio gave his most full-throated Trump endorsement yet, telling a crowd in Sarasota: "We have to make sure Donald Trump wins this election."
Rubio's motive isn't hard to decipher. He needs to win the Republican primary in Florida on Aug. 30, and that will become more difficult if the rabid GOP base Trump stirred up turns on him. But Rubio's political problem has always been that he's preternaturally unable to see more than one move ahead; he'll win his primary, and then he'll have to either own or try to walk back his support for a guy who will be toxic by November.
Last week, with the Trump campaign in freefall, Rubio tried to walk that razor-thin tightrope, calling Humayun Khan a hero and Trump's comments "unfortunate," but declining to criticize him. It's a "complex issue," he said.
No, Marco, it's really not.
The fact that Rubio's full embrace of Trump came the same week that the Trump campaign imploded – that he is running toward Trump just as everyone else in the party is running away – is, in a sense, karmic justice. When you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind. Trump has spent the last year catering to a revanchist party's basest instinct. He has insulted Muslims, Mexicans, women, the disabled, even an Indiana-born federal judge. He is erratic, ill-informed, vapid, rapacious and surrounded by conspiracy nuts. Rubio was right all those months ago: This isn't a guy who should have his finger on the button. Deep in whatever chasm passes for his soul, Marco probably knows that.
Any Republican who buys what Trump is selling – or, worse, embraces him for political expediency – deserves exactly what's coming to him. I suspect Little Marco will learn that lesson soon enough.