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Marco Rubio's rise may be a little too House of Cards for his colleagues

Has he betrayed too many people to be a true establishment favorite?

A man in a hurry ... to stab you in the back.
A man in a hurry ... to stab you in the back.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Virtually every Democrat I talk to in Washington is equal parts delighted and baffled that Republican Party stakeholders have as of yet done nothing to seriously try to unify the party establishment behind Marco Rubio. The thinking behind the two emotions is identical. Rubio seems as electable (if not more so) as anyone else in the field, and as consistently conservative as anyone this side of Ted Cruz — someone GOP elites despise and who'd be relatively easy for Clinton to beat. Of the establishment-friendly candidates, Rubio clearly seems the strongest and yet is currently weaker than both Cruz and Donald Trump. So why is the establishment so unfriendly to him?

Perhaps the answer lurks in the frequency with which Rubio is described as "a man in a hurry" by everyone from the Washington Post to the New York Times to CNN to CNBC to the Los Angeles Times and CBS. It's a Washington cliché, and it's not intended as a compliment. It's also not a straightforward remark about his experience — he's served far more time in elected office than Mitt Romney. But it's also not really a complaint about the pace with which Rubio runs — it's about whom he steps on along the way. It's a reminder that it's only in the context of Trumpmania that Rubio looks like an establishment-friendly figure at all. If you stop looking at him through liberal-tinted lenses, you see a politician whose brief but tumultuous record in national politics is marked by fairly erratic behavior and a rather Cruz-like tendency to put personal ambitions ahead of the good of the party.

Given the actually existing alternatives, the establishment may well yet come around to Team Rubio. But when you examine his career, it's not hard to see why many Republicans may prefer for a while to hold out hope that someone like Chris Christie or even the hapless Jeb Bush could manage to displace Rubio as the Official Alternative to the Trump/Cruz axis.

Rubio's record of defiance and disloyalty

Rubio entered the Senate in 2010 by challenging incumbent Florida Republican Gov. Charlie Crist in a primary election. This ultimately worked out for Rubio, but it caused a lot of trouble for the Florida GOP along the way. First Crist was driven out of the primary, leading him to mount an independent bid. This transformed what would have been a gimme victory for Crist over Democrat Kendrick Meek into a tough three-way fight. Then after Rubio won, Crist became a Democrat and emerged as the Democrats' dream recruit for the 2014 gubernatorial election. Crist lost this race, too, so from Rubio's viewpoint all's well that ends well. But to a pure party operative, this was two easy-win statewide elections that Rubio made much more difficult purely in order to fuel his own rise to power.

Rubio's key ally in all of this, however, was former Gov. Jeb Bush, who threw his endorsement behind Rubio rather than Crist in the 2010 race, giving his young acolyte a crucial imprimatur of respectability. Rubio repaid the favor earlier this year by refusing to stand aside in favor of the more senior Floridian, seriously wounding his former patron's campaign.

In the meantime, Rubio established himself in the Senate as an inconvenient rebel reluctant to follow guidance from the party leadership. Like a Tea Party insurgent, he refused to vote for the 2011 debt ceiling deal, the 2013 budget deal between Paul Ryan and Patty Murray, and a range of appropriations deals to avoid government shutdowns. But then having repeatedly rebelled from the right against Mitch McConnell's dealmaking, when the party leadership wanted to side with the right wing of the party and reject efforts to compromise with Democrats over immigration, Rubio rebelled from the left joining with John McCain and Chuck Schumer to author a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

But then when it became clear that association with the cause of immigration reform was imperiling his presidential aspirations, Rubio rebelled against the senior members of the rebel pro-reform faction, turning against his own bill and leaving them out to dry.

Politics ain't beanbag, but the fact of the matter is that House of Cards–style chicanery is relatively rare in Washington. Rubio has backstabbed a lot of people over the past five years, none of it in pursuit of any especially clear factional goal. This lack of strong factional identification is part of what makes Rubio look, from a distance, like an ideal consensus candidate. But in combination with the line jumping, elbow throwing, and double reversals, it looks a lot like naked opportunism.

Trust matters

One of the occupational hazards of political life in the modern era of polarized parties is that all politicians' fortunes are to a large extent hostage to the decisions of a same-party president. That's given rise to what Richard Skinner calls the "partisan presidency," one in which the norm is for presidents to staff their administrations with candidate-agnostic party operatives who can be counted on to steer the administration in the direction of the best interests of the party rather than the peculiar interests of the president.

Yet no administration has ever been a purely partisan one. Some staffers are, inevitably, personal loyalists of the president, and of course the president himself is an important member of his own administration.

That means rational officeholders have good reason to wish the nomination of a person whom they regard as a reliable partisan, someone who's unlikely to throw his down-ballot colleagues under the bus for personal gain. Rubio's leap into campaigning after a short Senate stint has often been compared to Barack Obama's, but there's a key difference here. Obama's campaign was substantially boosted by senior congressional Democrats, who regarded him as more of a party loyalist than Hillary Clinton. Rubio can always make the argument to his fellow elected officials that basically anyone is better than Trump or Cruz. But given his own record of disloyalty, it's easy to understand that many Republican officeholders want to hold out a little longer for a fourth option.

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