Finally. Sen. Marco Rubio’s public Hamlet routine about whether to run for re-election is over. No longer will we have to bother with reports about what his conscience is telling him and how events like the Orlando shooting helped him arrive at the conclusion that was wisest for his political future. He is running because that’s his best available option for positioning himself ahead of the 2020 Republican presidential primaries, period, the end. There’s nothing wrong with that; go get ’em, tiger. But one more day of this hammy aw-shucks routine and Rubio might’ve chewed up all that was left of the scenery at the Russell Senate Office Building.
“There were two paths before us,” Rubio writes near the end of his letter explaining why he chose to run. “There was one path that was more personally comfortable and probably smarter politically. But after much thought and prayer,”—this guy!—“together we chose to continue with public service; to continue down the path that provides the opportunity to make a positive difference at this critical and uncertain time for our nation.”
Let’s examine the path not taken, the one he had pledged to follow before he did all that thinking and praying. It’s no lie it would have been more “personally comfortable” for him to have accepted a position as executive vice president of power-lunching for the financial entity of his choosing.
The skyscraper corner office is there for whenever he wants it. But what about the Oval? He hasn’t given up on that yet. Though he argues that not running for re-election would have been “probably smarter politically”—itself a tell that his thinking still very much involves the White House—that self-effacing calculus doesn’t check out.
Rubio had three options for positioning himself for the White House.
The first, as noted, was to enter the private sector. Aside from the torrents of cash, this could have plugged a hole in his résumé: business experience. The only problem is: What business experience could a figure like Marco Rubio pick up in the two years he would have before he started running for president again? It’s not enough time to actually start a private sector career, becoming a haberdasher or dry-goods merchant or whatever romanticized version of small business plays well in politics. He would either take the aforementioned sinecure at a hedge fund or join a law practice—most likely some combination of both. How would he use this? “Just like you,” he would say, standing atop a hay bale at the 2019 Iowa State Fair, “I get up each morning, put on my pants, kiss my wife and kids goodbye and go to work in the private sector, using my networks of contacts to help devise strategies for inserting into appropriations bills riders that would dilute the federal government’s ability to enforce capital requirements.”
Then there’s the non-Senate political option: running for governor of Florida in 2018. Rubio had denied any interest in this office but, heh, well. Were he to win that race, he’d thicken his résumé with executive experience. The problem here is that presidential primary voters no longer care about gubernatorial experience. In the minefield of the contemporary Republican presidential primary, such experience and the difficult decisions that governing necessitates are more likely to serve as negatives. Being a governor also limits exposure to the national political media; he would risk falling off the map. And the timeline doesn’t work, either: He can’t launch a presidential campaign for 2020 the day after his inauguration in 2019. Barring another total crackup—a serious caveat—the 2020 Republican nominee will have an extremely good chance of denying Hillary Clinton a second term, so Rubio would have to wait until 2028 for his next shot. Are all of these downsides really worth the utility of being able to say, “I cleaned up Tallahassee” over and over on a debate stage? The recent literature suggests not.
Rubio’s best option for reaching the White House is to win re-election this fall and spend two more years posturing on the Senate floor before launching his second presidential campaign. A lengthier tenure will comfort the not-insignificant tranche of voters who thought his time hadn’t yet come. He’ll bury the Gang of Eight experience further down in his biography, and he’ll know never again to make the same fatal mistake of trying to pass meaningful bipartisan legislation. He can dutifully vote “no” on as many bills as are necessary to procure his 100 percent rating from Heritage Action, and at the end of the day he can trudge down Capitol Hill to the Fox News studios and talk about how terrible Hillary Clinton is. He’s also keenly aware that he’s doing the party a favor by running for re-election. In one of its more honest moments, his explanatory letter notes how critical the Florida Senate race is to the balance of power in the Senate. When it comes time to run again, he’ll have a bounty of chits to call in.
“In the end,” he writes in his robotically saccharine style that America came to know earlier this year, “this was a decision made not in Washington, but back home in West Miami over Father’s Day weekend, with my wife and our four children.” A satisfying clincher to a well-executed public relations mission. Rubio made this pledge that he wouldn’t run again a while ago and then came to realize that running again was probably his best option ahead of 2020. He had the patience to allow himself to be drafted. These last weeks have been impeccably choreographed, and the Father’s Day decision is the audience-tested closing scene.
The anecdote that gives us a rawer look at how Rubio really thinks, though, is the one, reported by Washingtonian, about how he asked Ted Cruz on Tuesday to “blast out a statement urging Rubio to run for reelection, ‘so it’s not just Mitch [McConnell]’ asking him to do so.” Cruz did end up endorsing Rubio on Wednesday, referring to him—with just the right amount of condescension—as “a tremendous communicator.” Still, you’ve got to wonder whose anonymous aides leaked that embarrassing request from Rubio. The 2020 race between Cruz and Rubio is on, and both of them recognize that staying in the Senate is the best way to kill time and stay in the picture until then. Rubio just had a more complicated route to get there.