The trouble started nearly two weeks ago, on Friday, Feb. 26. Marco Rubio, under pressure from Republican insiders and the press to go after Donald Trump aggressively, departed from his usual script and went down a road that can charitably be described as classless.
Over the course of several days, Rubio, who’d spent months trying to present himself as presidential and a candidate with gravitas, began telling audiences that Trump might urinate on himself, mocking Trump’s hair and face, and even making vulgar jokes about Trump’s genitals.
Not quite two weeks later, the senator now seems to realize that wasn’t a smart move.
Marco Rubio said Wednesday he’s “not entirely proud” of his personal attacks on Donald Trump and wouldn’t have launched them if he could do things over again.“In terms of things that have to do with personal stuff, yeah, at the end of the day it’s not something I’m entirely proud of. My kids were embarrassed by it, and if I had to do it again I wouldn’t,” he said during an MSNBC town hall.
In his interview with Chuck Todd, Rubio added, “[I]f I had to do it again, I would have done that part differently.”
Just so we’re clear, this isn’t in reference to a mistake Rubio made in the distant past; all of this refers to rhetoric the Florida senator was still using literally last week.
The Washington Post published a very detailed look at Team Rubio’s gutter strategy, which the newspaper characterized as a “fateful decision that helped unravel” the senator’s campaign. The piece noted that many of Rubio’s supporters now see the gambit as “central to his unraveling.”
The article quoted a Rubio ally saying, “Up until he started talking about how Trump has a small penis, it was brilliant.”
If that’s not a classic quote that helps capture the inanity of the 2016 presidential campaign, I don’t know what is.
But let’s not forget that the quote, while extraordinary, isn’t quite true. The campaign was hardly “brilliant” before Rubio and his advisors chose to abandon their dignity.
In recent presidential elections, there are similar examples of damaging incidents that tend to be remembered incorrectly. Howard Dean’s “scream” in 2004, for example, is often thought of as the moment his campaign came to a crashing halt, but the truth is the governor’s candidacy was already in sharp decline before the infamous post-defeat celebration in Iowa.
In late 2011, Rick Perry’s “oops” debate moment is sometimes seen as the incident that doomed his campaign, but the Texas Republican was also already spiraling downward before he forgot which cabinet agencies he intended to eliminate.
Rubio’s gutter tactics are slowly moving into the same category, but like Dean and Perry, Rubio’s troubles were already evident long before he took an interest in Donald Trump’s anatomy. The Floridian finished third in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, for example. Rubio expected to win in South Carolina, but lost by double digits, and then expected to win Nevada, before losing by an even wider margin.
It was at this point that Team Rubio made a deliberate decision to take the campaign in a trashy direction. It was desperate; it undermined his team’s months-long branding campaign; and it said something profoundly ugly about what Rubio thinks of Republican voters themselves. Worse, the whole strategy failed miserably.
But let’s not remember the incident as a mistake that doomed a campaign that was otherwise running “beautifully.” Rubio was already failing.