By Tom Krattenmaker
For the sake of common decency in America and the nobler side of Republican politics, let’s hope these are not the final days of Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign — which indeed they might be if he does not get the big Florida win he needs to remain a contender past Tuesday.
As the GOP race has become increasingly crazy and even violent, Rubio’s voice has been a welcome contrast to the anger and scapegoating of Trump and the self-interested gloom-and-doom of Ted Cruz. (Similar compliments could be paid to John Kasich, although for numerous reasons his voice has not cut through the din as clearly and compellingly as Rubio’s.)
The imposter who took over Rubio’s body and message two weeks ago has now slithered away, and good thing. The adolescent insults against Trump, including insinuations that his rival suffers from a below-the-belt deficit, provided cringeworthy spectacle but little else. Rubio now acknowledges the low road was a mistake, which is interesting for two reasons: One, he’s right. And, two, it’s refreshing and rare to hear such candid admissions of error from politicians on the national stage.
“My kids were embarrassed by it,” Rubio said. “My wife didn’t like it. … That’s not who I am. That’s not what my campaign is going to be about or will ever be about again.”
Take note: This is how it’s done when it comes to a being an upstanding person and making a public admission of error. No minimizing, no excuses, no blaming others—just the acceptance of responsibility and a promise not to let it happen again.
Rubio has also been impressive in recent days for his effectiveness in challenging Trump’s incessant abuse of the concept of political correctness. Last week, Trump made the reckless claim that “Islam hates us” and then, as usual, tried to spin his irresponsible speech as virtuous, saying that he would not be stopped by that scourge of political correctness that he insists is destroying the nation.
In refuting this nonsense at last week’s debate, Rubio was at his articulate best. Pointing out that many Muslims are proud and loyal Americans, he said, “Presidents can’t just say whatever they want. It has consequences. … I’m not interested in being politically correct. I’m interested in being correct.”
For a conservative Republican to call this foul is overdue — and huge. It’s ridiculous for political figures to cite their disdain for political correctness as a cover for bigoted statements against vulnerable minority groups or, worse yet, as a sign of bravery. Thank you, Marco Rubio, for risking your popularity in GOP circles by saying what needed to be said.
In a similar vein, Rubio has been a much-needed voice of sanity and maturity these past few days as Trump’s events have become disturbingly violent. This is enormously valuable. Too few ambitious Republicans have had the courage to tamp down rather than exploit the politically useful anger and hostility that is such a conspicuous part of the political landscape today.
Rubio spoke to this clearly over the weekend. “Our politics have basically become like the comments section of blogs,” he said. “This is what happens when political candidates talk as if they’re people on Twitter. And the result is now bleeding over into the broader culture.” Leadership, Rubio added, is not about “taking people’s anger and using it to get them to vote for you.”
None of this is to whitewash the rookie mistakes and climate change denialism that are also part of Rubio’s body of work. For instance, his robotic blaming of President Obama at one of last month’s candidate debates deserved the criticism that then-rival Chris Christie heaped on him. He was at it again over the weekend, accusing Obama of dividing Americans and contributing to the anger boiling over at Trump rallies. Not fair. And Rubio’s trivializing of climate change as some crazy liberal scheme to “change the weather” is either woefully ignorant or unforgivably dishonest.
Some will argue that praise from a liberal writer like me provides all the proof one needs that Rubio, not Trump, is the one who is lacking in the conservative manhood department. That would be a mistake. None of Rubio’s nobler statements of late make him a liberal.
They make him more of a decent human being and responsible politician — one who will remain in this race a while longer if there is any justice left in the Republican political universe.
A member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors, Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion in public life and communications director at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of the book The Evangelicals You Don’t Know.