This is not a post about what I think should happen. This is a post about what I think will happen. And what I think will happen is that Marco Rubio is going to emerge from this sad, depressing election cycle the least permanently scarred of any of the people who were actually involved in it.
As I sit to write these words, Rubio is racking up an impressive primary win over his well-funded opponent Carlos Beruff, who attempted to oust Rubio on the same basic basis that Paul Nehlen attempted to use against Paul Ryan. If the polls are to be believed, Rubio is headed towards a solid 6-7% general election win even as Trump looks likely to lose the state.
Rubio’s every action since deciding to stick in the race through the March 15th primaries has been endlessly scrutinized and many of those decisions have drawn their fair share of sniping, from his late decision to re-enter the primary, to his tepid and openly backhanded endorsement of Trump, to his back-and-forth about whether he would speak at the convention and if so, whether he would speak on behalf of Trump, Rubio has elicited mutters while navigating his political path.
But “mutters” is probably better than the rest of the 2016 Presidential field will likely muster. Other than Ted Cruz, none of the other contenders did anything other than get blown off the stage by Trump, and the Republican electorate will not want to entertain serious consideration of them again. Sorry, moneyed fans of Jeb Bush and John Kasich, this means they are toast, too. Other than Rubio and Cruz, there is no candidate in the field whose performance in this debacle actual engenders a positive response in virtually anyone anymore.
I think you can make the case (and I do) that Cruz’s decision to not endorse Trump at the convention was without question the more honorable path to take, but I sadly believe that it will end up hurting Cruz long-term – and given the number of enemies Cruz already had in the party, this additional blow to his standing might have been fatal to any realistic Presidential aspirations. Even if history totally vindicates Cruz’s point – as I think it will – the optics of having done it at the convention will leave a bad taste in some people’s mouth. Is that stupid? Of course, especially considering that people are essentially saying that Cruz wasn’t sufficiently polite to a man who called his wife ugly and blamed his dad for assassinating JFK. But a great many voters are stupid and there’s no point pretending that isn’t true anymore.
Rubio, meanwhile, irritated people a little when he endorsed Trump and other people a little when he basically said “he’s still a con man, though,” but avoided gaining the eternal enmity of either faction which means he might well escape the wreckage of this disaster more politically intact than anyone. Either way, anyone who took a strong stance on either side of the fence will be eternally distrusted and despised by a huge number of national voters.
In the final analysis, I think it’s pretty likely that whoever wins in 2020 will have to be someone who was completely disconnected from this whole Trump mess. Someone who wasn’t even in a position of enough prominence that no one even asked them publicly if they supported Trump or not. Someone who’s name hasn’t been associated with Trump either way for months and months. Someone who represents some hope of being able to heal what this ugly year has wrought, and that will likely need to be a brand new face. I expect Rubio himself knows this as well and that his Presidential aspirations are either done or to be reconsidered in maybe 2024, when he will still be relatively young. But in the meantime he might be escaping the blast radius with the least damage possible.