Over the summer, Donald Trump soared to the top of Republican presidential polls, vowing to "make America great again." At the time, Marco Rubio made a conscious, deliberate effort to reject his rival's pitch.
Trump's wrong, Rubio said in August, because America is already great. "I know what [Trump] is trying to say," the senator added in September, "but my problem is that America is a great country."
That was four months ago. Last night, at a campaign event in Iowa, Rubio told his audience, "We are going to be a great country again ... if you give me the chance to be your president."
The difference isn't subtle. All of that stuff Rubio said over the summer, rejecting the idea that America is somehow falling short of greatness, no longer applies. The Florida senator has stopped rejecting Trump's line and started echoing it.
And this is hardly the only example. Bloomberg Politics reported this morning that Rubio's "tone has darkened as he chases rivals Donald Trump and Ted Cruz for his party's nomination."
Marco Rubio has adopted a darker tone in the first week of 2016, deploying increasingly apocalyptic rhetoric and fiercer attacks on Republican rivals that provide a stark contrast with the relatively non-confrontational brand of sunny optimism that had characterized his presidential campaign through 2015.
The Bloomberg article lists some striking examples of Rubio changing his posture dramatically, pushing fear-based messages that are as hysterical as they are dumb. "Barack Obama released terrorists from Guantanamo, and now they are plotting to attack us," Rubio foolishly claimed in a new TV ad. "His plan after the attack in San Bernardino: take away our guns," the senator added, repeating an obvious, demagogic lie.
"If we get this election wrong, there may be no turning around for America," Rubio told voters this week, the same day he blamed the United States for North Korea's provocative weapons tests.
A Washington Post piece noted this morning that Rubio has "de-emphasized the optimistic language about 'a new American century' that was the hallmark of 2015." It added Rubio's condemnations of Democrats have grown "more piercing, the elbows he is throwing at his GOP opponents are sharper and his warnings about the national security risks of siding with them over him are more dire and more frequent."
So much for sunny, Reagan-esque optimism.
Broadly speaking, I think there are three angles to keep in mind. The first is that Trump and Cruz, once dismissed as irrelevant, are now driving the Republican conversation in unmistakable ways -- and it's Rubio who is scrambling, desperate to follow their lead.
Greg Sargent wrote this morning, "[N]ow that Trump and Cruz are winning over large swaths of the GOP electorate with demagoguing about immigration and Muslims, Rubio is now trafficking more and more in conventionally angry appeals to the GOP base. As Paul Waldman recently put it, Rubio seems to be morphing into an 'angry young man.' Rubio's sunny optimism is retreating behind a cloud of angry demagoguery."
Second, this tonal and rhetorical shift, coupled with a sharp departure from his no-need-for-retail-politicking strategy, are implicit acknowledgement that Rubio and his team are not as confident as they seemed several weeks ago. Much of the media and GOP establishment has assumed for months that the Florida Republican would eventually prevail, but if Rubio were on track to succeed, he wouldn't have overhauled his message and direction.
And finally, this is the latest in a series of reminders that Rubio is not above reinventing himself in order to advance his personal ambitions. Remember, when he arrived in the Senate, Rubio carefully distanced himself from his party's neo-conservative orthodoxy on foreign policy -- right up until he embraced that same orthodoxy when it suited his political interests.
Rubio also saw himself as a champion of comprehensive immigration reform, even partnering with progressive Democrats to co-author a bill embraced by President Obama -- right up until he denounced his own legislation and betrayed his former allies in the hopes of helping his campaign.
Now, Rubio is reinventing himself once again, hoping to tap into the same fear and anger that's propelling his rivals. The common thread: the young senator will say, do, and think whatever he thinks it takes to get ahead, even if it bears no resemblance to what he said, did, and thought up until quite recently.