Marco Rubio’s Spinelessness

The Florida senator attacks Obama for a perfectly normal speech about Muslims.

Marco Rubio.
Marco Rubio holds a campaign town hall event at the Timberland Company headquarters on Feb. 4, 2016, in Stratham, New Hampshire.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Marco Rubio, the Florida senator and Republican presidential candidate, strikes me as a relatively sensible guy. He’s more conservative than most Americans, but he’s not mean like Donald Trump or belligerent like Sen. Ted Cruz. Rubio has shown signs of constructive pragmatism, most notably when he sponsored bipartisan immigration reform legislation in 2013. And Rubio, unlike Trump or Cruz, seems to care about getting things right. He used to accuse Hillary Clinton of publicly blaming the Benghazi attack on an anti-Muslim video. Then reporters pointed out that Clinton had never done so. Since then, Rubio has dropped the charge.

Rubio’s reasonableness makes him a good instrument for measuring Obama Derangement Syndrome—an inversion of what conservatives used to call Bush Derangement Syndrome. Here’s how it works: Once President Obama says something, no matter how sensible or mundane it is—or how closely it mirrors what Republicans used to say—Republicans must repudiate it. Today, this disease so fully consumes the GOP that even the more mainstream Republican candidates find themselves saying things that ought to embarrass them. That’s what Rubio has just done on the subject of Muslim Americans.

The latest outbreak of ODS began Wednesday afternoon, when President Obama visited a mosque and embraced Muslims as part of the American family. Obama wasn’t the first president to do this: George W. Bush delivered the same message at a mosque six days after the 9/11 attacks. But now that Obama was saying it, Rubio had to attack it. Hours after Obama’s speech, Rubio was asked at a town hall in New Hampshire how he would manage the presidency. In response, Rubio accused Obama of dividing Americans “along ethnic lines and racial lines and economic lines and religious lines.” The senator fumed:

I’m tired of being divided against each other for political reasons like this president’s done. Always pitting people against each other. Always. He’s always—look at today: He gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know—basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims as a—of course there’s discrimination in America of every kind. But the bigger issue is radical Islam. … It’s this constant pitting people against each other that—I can’t stand that. It’s hurting our country badly.

Rubio’s description of Obama’s speech is completely false. At the mosque, Obama delivered stern words about radical Islam, domestic separatism, and Muslim anti-Semitism. “You’re not Muslim or American,” Obama told the audience. “You’re Muslim and American. … Don’t believe that you have to choose between your best impulses and somehow embrace a worldview that pits us against each other—or, even worse, glorifies violence. … We are one American family.”

Personally, I’m inclined to cut Rubio some slack. He had a busy day on the campaign trail and probably didn’t have time to read or see what Obama had said. But in that case, what possessed him to characterize the speech at all? And this isn’t the first time Rubio has misrepresented an Obama speech on this subject. Two months ago, after the San Bernardino, California, attack, Obama delivered similar remarks in a nationally televised address. In response, Rubio immediately went on Fox News and exploded: “The cynicism! The cynicism tonight, to spend a significant amount of time talking about discrimination against Muslims. Where is there widespread evidence that we have a problem in America with discrimination against Muslims?”

At that time, in early December, it’s possible that Rubio was simply ignorant. But that excuse won’t fly anymore. As many reporters have noted since then, the annual rate of hate crimes against Muslims in the United States has been five times higher after 9/11 than it was before. In the most recent annual report, Muslims are the only group that suffered an increase in hate crimes. They endured far fewer attacks than Jews did, but 70 percent more than Christians did. Yet Rubio, while scoffing at anti-Muslim discrimination, routinely laments the plight of American Christians who feel stigmatized for their beliefs.

Rubio’s Obama Derangement Syndrome has worsened over the years. He joined the Republican frenzy to “repeal and replace” Obamacare instead of just removing parts of it and leaving intact the elements he supports. He renounced comprehensive immigration reform and now competes with Trump and Cruz to see who can talk the toughest about fences and deportation. On Iran, Rubio has outflanked Trump, pledging to cancel American participation in the nuclear agreement with Tehran “on my first day in office.” Even if you think the agreement was bad, canceling it—thereby freeing Iran from the deal’s nonproliferation terms without recovering any of the money or the international sanctions—is insane. The only explanation for this behavior, from a senator who claims to be a national security expert, is anti-Obama derangement.

On the right, Rubio’s escalating rhetoric is, as intended, drawing raves. On Thursday, a front-page contributor at Redstate welcomed the senator’s attack on Obama for moaning about “piddly-sh**” hate crimes against Muslim Americans. The author concluded: “Rubio is not my preferred candidate, but he is showing more spine with each and every passing day.”

The simplest explanation for Rubio’s rambling remarks about Muslims is just the opposite: He’s losing his spine and parroting the talking points of the Obama-deranged right. But if I’m wrong—if Rubio’s increasingly reckless remarks about immigrants, Iran, and Muslim Americans are a manifestation of what he really thinks—then there aren’t just two dangerous extremists at the front of the Republican presidential pack. There are three.

Read more Slate coverage of the GOP primary.