Marco Rubio speaks during Republican presidential debate at Milwaukee Theatre, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015, in Milwaukee, Wis.
Photo by Morry Gash/AP

Rubio faces leadership test and flunks

Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump started the week by talking about closing down mosques, before taking the truly extraordinary step yesterday of saying he would “absolutely” implement a policy of registering Muslim Americans into a government database. The question now is what his GOP rivals intend to say and do in response.
Jeb Bush, to his credit, told CNBC this morning that Trump’s approach is “just wrong.” Ted Cruz, who’s been highly reluctant for months to say a discouraging word about the New York developer, was willing to argue this morning, “I’m a big fan of Donald Trump’s but I’m not a fan of government registries of American citizens.”
Marco Rubio, as best as I can tell, hasn’t commented yet on Trump’s registry idea, but he did speak last night with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, who was reminded by the host, “One of your fellow candidates, Donald Trump is suggesting we may need to close mosques that have problems with radicals at the top. What do you say?” Here’s the senator’s response in its entirety, by way of the Nexis transcript:
“Well, I think it’s not about closing down mosques. It’s about closing down any place, whether it’s a cafe, a diner, an internet spot, any place where radicals are being inspired.
“And that we have – the biggest problem we have is our inability to find out what these places are because we’ve crippled our intelligence programs, both through an authorized disclosure by a traitor, in other words, Snowden, or by some of the things that this president has put in place for the support even of some from my own party to diminish our intelligence capabilities.
“So, whatever facilities being used, it’s not just a mosques. Any facility that’s being used to radicalize and inspire attacks against the United States should be a place that we look at.”
Let’s unwrap this a bit because I think it says something important about a top presidential candidate’s perspective on a key issue.
First, there’s some ambiguity to Rubio’s answer, since he chose not to respond directly to the question. The senator says he’s prepared to “close down any place” – “not just mosques.” In context, however, that suggests mosques would be among the facilities a Rubio administration would target, aligning him with at least part of Trump’s agenda.
Second, I’d love to hear more about how Rubio intends to target cafes and diners. How would that work, exactly? If the goal is to go after “any place” where someone might be “inspired” by radical ideas, are we to believe a President Rubio might also try to close libraries’ doors?
And finally, why can’t Rubio give a straight answer in response to Trump’s extremism?
In fairness to the Florida senator, he wasn’t asked about Trump’s most offensive comments, and Rubio may yet follow Bush’s and Cruz’s lead on the database issue. But the senator was asked about his comfort level in using the federal government to target American houses of worship, and in response, Rubio offered an evasive answer.
At Commentary magazine, conservative Noah Rothman wrote this morning, “Marco Rubio missed an opportunity last night to do something that might have been politically stupid but nevertheless righteous. There is a malignancy eating away at the Republican Party, and Rubio passed on an opportunity to begin the work of excising it.”
Presidential campaigns offer occasional leadership opportunities for candidates to seize. In this case, Rubio faced a test and flunked.