Marco Rubio and his fire within

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It seems inevitable that Senator Marco Rubio, R-FL, will declare himself a candidate for president within the next few weeks. His senior advisor is letting it be known that his entire staff is to proceed as if he’s about to launch a presidential bid. Rubio’s announced he’ll be skipping votes in the Senate this week to make a fundraising swing through donor-rich Beverly Hills, Newport Beach, and Chicago. Most tellingly of all, he’s scheduled a book tour that dutifully touches all five early voting states.

So the 43-year-old Marco is making moves. That’s not surprising — Rubio is the very rare politician who makes no secret of just how ambitious he is. His autobiography “An American Son” tells the story of his inexorable rise from humble city councilman to U.S. senator, painting his life story as one fueled by ferocious ambition.

Senator Marco Rubio's official Senate portrait (Wikipedia)
Senator Marco Rubio’s official Senate portrait (Wikipedia)

When the freshman senator joined the world’s most exclusive club, he had already made national waves as a giant-killer. His upset of popular Republican-turned-Independent Governor Charlie Crist was the shocker of the 2010 cycle, proof that the emerging Tea Party was a force to be reckoned with. “The First Senator From The Tea Party?” asked the New York Times in January 2010. Conservative media was even hotter on Rubio’s trail. Red State’s Erik Erickson singled out Rubio’s campaign as ground zero for the battle over the soul of the Republican Party; pundits George Will and Charles Krauthammer were almost as quick to label Rubio a star.

And he does have a lot going for him. He’s politically gifted, enjoys good name recognition, and won’t have a problem raising decent campaign cash (decent, but not great thanks to Jeb Bush’s formidable network.) Sure, he’s overcome odds that actually seemed longer in 2009-2010, when he came out of nowhere, with 3 percent name recognition, to topple a governor with 70 percent approval statewide. But despite that precedent, I have to wonder if Rubio has the fire in him for a national campaign.

It’s not well-known, but Rubio’s rise to the Senate is actually the story of a perfect storm of political accidents. In December 2008 he was an unknown former state lawmaker who had left office months after term limits required him to do so. It seemed his respectable political career was over, and he was beginning to resign himself to becoming a full-time lawyer and professor when GOP Senator Mel Martinez of Florida announced he would be retiring, setting off a free-for-all for the seat that would be open in 2010.

Rubio was immediately interested, recalling in “An American Son” that he told his wife Jeanette that he would be a credible contender for the seat if he announced — not a frontrunner, but credible. But the rumors that Jeb Bush might be interested froze the Republican field.

“If he were to run,” Rubio said of Bush, “no one would challenge him in the primary – certainly not me.”

But Jeb decided to pass on a run for Senate, and fortunately for other ambitious Republicans, he let his decision be known early. Martinez’s Senate seat was fair game again for Rubio.

But one titan had hardly left the race before another emerged. The news in February 2009 was hard to believe, but GOP Governor Charlie Crist – who had overwhelming approval ratings, a well-oiled fundraising machine, and unbeatable name recognition — was considering the race. Rubio doesn’t even try to hide his timid reaction in his memoirs.

Senator Marco Rubio addresses the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) in 2014 (Wikipedia)
Senator Marco Rubio addresses the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) in 2014 (Wikipedia)

“I’m not proud of my initial reaction to the news,” he wrote. “If Crist runs for the Senate, I thought to myself, I’ll run for Governor. It made political sense.”

But Crist sent mixed signals. His consideration of the race froze the field for a few months, but his hesitation made Rubio wonder if he’d take the plunge to leave Tallahassee after all. He toured the state and took a wait-and-see approach, still resolved to leave the race if Crist ran for Senate.

When Rubio mentioned his political calculations to Jeanette, his wife had a reply that stung him. “Oh, I guess all you want is the title.”

It burned him, he wrote, because she was right. He was thinking about his political career, and a way to preserve his future viability by avoiding an embarrassing wipeout against the Crist juggernaut.

But even as Rubio tip-toed, Crist’s team was bent on crushing and humiliating him. According to Rubio, some of his employers were approached by allies of the governor to let his displeasure with their associations be known; other operatives boasted publicly they hoped Rubio would run so they could end his career once and for all. “Had the Republican Party chairman or Crist himself reached out to me personally in the spring of 2009, they could probably have persuaded me not to run. I’m not proud of it now,” Rubio wrote. “Instead, out of pride and hubris, they chose to intimidate me. And I, too, reacted out of pride.”

The insults gave Rubio the determination to stick it through. He’d had enough disrespect.

Until August 2009, that is, when Crist’s amazing $4.3 million quarterly haul, not to mention a flood of Republican endorsements, put more pressure on Rubio to bow to the inevitable. “I was afraid to lose. I was afraid to be embarrassed. I wanted to take the easiest path to elected office, and I made up all sorts of rationalizations to disguise my cowardice. Hadn’t I wanted to run for AG a few years earlier?”

It’s an amazing confession. Charlie Crist’s own memoirs of the race, “The Party’s Over,” is eye-rollingly disingenuous at times when he glosses over his own political calculations. Not Rubio: he wants people to know exactly what he’s ashamed of, detailing every political move based purely in self-interest that he’s ever made.

He writes of pleading with his family and supporters to realize the impossible jam he was in. “Is this what you want? To see me destroyed by millions of dollars in negative advertising? To see my political career end in humiliation?”

Later on in the book, he discusses his secret overtures to Crist’s camp in 2009 to exit the primary in exchange for clearing the field for him to run for Attorney General. Rubio was all set to do it, against his wife’s advice and his backers’ wishes, until Crist overreached and leaked the news to reporters in an attempt to embarrass him. Out of pride once again, Rubio stayed in the race, making a spur-of-the-moment decision to tell the inquiring reporter that rumors of his withdrawal were false.

Former Governor Jeb Bush (R-Florida) is seen as the favorite for the GOP nomination in 2016 — and a political mentor to Rubio (Wikipedia)
Former Governor Jeb Bush (R-Florida) is seen as the favorite for the GOP nomination in 2016 — and a political mentor to Rubio (Wikipedia)

These are the little quirks of fate in politics. If Charlie Crist had sat back in August 2009 and gave Rubio breathing room to quit with dignity, he’d have kept his aura of inevitability and gone on to Washington. And Rubio would most likely be a name to watch in Florida state politics and nothing else today.

On the one hand, it’s hard to read Rubio’s incredible honesty and not feel some appreciation for his candor. Almost every political autobiography is at least a little self-serving, but Rubio actually seems intent on revealing all his flaws, sins, and shortcomings to the world, no matter how easy it would be to keep his ulterior motives hidden. After reading paragraph after paragraph of his self-flagellation and analysis of his vices, you can’t help but think something to the effect of “Dude, you realized people would be reading this, right?”

But on the other hand, what Rubio reveals about himself should give would-be backers pause at supporting him. The fact that Rubio admits to political cowardice doesn’t erase the fact that he’s guilty of it. He overcame long odds thanks to a perfect storm of egos and a national wave he was positioned to ride, but never could have predicted.

Maybe he can defy odds again, and defeat Jeb Bush — a better-known, better-financed rival who happens to have a lock on Florida’s GOP, much as Crist had in 2009. But potential donors to Marco Rubio’s campaign should look long and hard at Rubio’s record of moving to quit in hard times, and ask themselves, “Is this the horse I want to back?”