At some point between last week’s Republican presidential candidate debate and the Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses, something profound and not very-well-understood happened to the GOP contest: Marco Rubio replaced Donald Trump as the rebel breaking all the rules. I wrote about this today at New York:
After yesterday’s Super Tuesday contests confirmed the pecking order of Republican presidential candidates, the third-place finisher, Marco Rubio, continued his recent pattern of threats to do everything within his power to stop first-place finisher Donald Trump. Having already crossed the Rubicon (Rubio-con?) by associating himself with the meme #NeverTrump, thereby abrogating his “loyalty pledge” to support the Republican nominee, Rubio’s posturing as a GOP “unity candidate” is more bizarre than ever. Yet he shows no signs of changing course and is now hinting at some sort of monstrous convention cabal to stop Trump if voters refuse to do so. If he fails, then presumably he will take a walk or support an independent or third-party bid, unless the word never has changed its meaning.
Such is the passion for this freshman senator in Republican Establishment and mainstream-media circles that it is taking a long time for the commentariat to realize it’s Rubio, not Trump, who is at present undertaking a hostile takeover bid for control of the GOP. David Graham of The Atlantic registered the surreal nature of Rubio’s Super Tuesday speech in Miami last night:[W]hen Rubio came out to speak, early in the night, he once again struck the same triumphant pose he has employed time and again, as his campaign finished second or third in contest after contest. “When I am president of the United States, we will not just save the American dream, we will expand it to more people than ever!” he said.
The most telling moment in his speech, however, came a few moments later. “Five days ago, we began to explain to the American people that Donald Trump is a con artist,” Rubio said, alluding to the onslaught of opposition research, insults, and barnyard jokes he has directed at the GOP frontrunner, starting with Thursday’s debate. Why did that take so long, though? It may have been too late to save the Republican Party from Trump, and if it wasn’t, it may have been too late to save Rubio. His case as the Trump alternative depends not on beating Trump outright, but on depriving him of an outright victory with delegates ahead of the Republican convention, then wresting the nomination from him there.
One of the subthemes of this odd presidential cycle has been the oversold idea that party elites can impose their will on sheeplike primary voters whenever they choose. As recently as a couple of weeks ago, Rubio began benefiting from a cascade of elected-official endorsements, and many observers concluded that the party was “deciding” on him as its choice. But unless voters rather than elites quickly consolidate behind a non-Trump candidate, all this talk of fighting the winner of many primaries up to and including the convention could expose the ugly reality that the Establishment is trying to revoke the franchise because they don’t like the results….
If Rubio and his friends decide that either bossing a convention to the “right” result or bailing (as the #NeverTrump meme clearly threatens) on the GOP altogether are where their current efforts are heading, then the rest of us should stop treating Trump as the guy who is elevating his ego and ambition above his party’s prospects for ultimate victory. In what may be turning into a fight between elites and voters, in November the voters will have the final word.