Tuesday was not a happy day for religion writers like myself who explore the intersection of the Catholic Church and American politics. With Marco Rubio’s withdrawal from the GOP nomination race on Tuesday, we lost the last Catholic in what had been an unprecedented bumper crop of a Republican presidential hopefuls (Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Jeb Bush & Rick Santorum) and the last chance for the first Catholic GOP nominee.
The moment seemed perfect for a strong Evangelical Catholic like Rubio who could move comfortably among the major faith traditions—evangelicals, conservative Catholics and Mormons—who comprise much of the bedrock Republican base. The fact that he is young and Hispanic only added to the portrait of the perfect Republican candidate.
There are numerous theories as to why Rubio’s candidacy, which looked so perfect on paper, failed to catch fire. Much of the blame goes to his poor performance as a candidate. He was too controlled and robotic on the stump and in debates, and his best moments came when he threw caution to the wind and spoke like an actual human rather than someone who had been genetically engineered in some Heritage Foundation/Center for Strategic and International Studies laboratory somewhere.
Rubio’s failure to get any traction can also be seen as a rejection of “Bushism,” a political synthesis of faith-based, “compassionate conservatism” social policy (including his doomed support for immigration reform), large tax cuts, and a hawkish foreign policy based on a “vision of a crusading America whose interests and values were perfectly aligned.” It turns out that even many Republicans are less trusting of Wall Street and the capitalist overlords these days, and prefer Donald Trump’s brand of egotistical, selectively anti-Islamic hawkishness to Bush’s “seeds of democracy” imperialism, which failed to sprout after two long and costly wars.
And then there are the contradictions embedded in the candidacy of a man who came to Washington as a member of the Tea Party: Send me to Washington so I can dismantle Washington, then punish me when I actually try to do something. Of course, as his final humiliation at the hands of Florida voters shows, it’s hard to build a relationship with your constituents when you run on the pretense of going to Washington and not doing anything for them.
Of course, Ted Cruz is an even a bigger advocate of tearing the government down, and he won his state of Texas and almost 2.5 times the number of delegates. But just as Donald Trump has found his constituency among struggling, downscale white voters terrified that ISIS is going to show up on their front porch, Cruz has found his among the true believers, the homeschoolers and dominonists, the “constitutional” conservatives and cultural reactionaries.
By contrast, Rubio’s natural constituency was moderately religious Republican professionals and neocons: relatively young, college-educated, suburban-dwelling, church-going evangelicals and Catholics who oppose abortion and may send their kids to a faith-based school, but shrugged off the Obergefell decision and are more worried about taxes than conspiracy theories.
Rubio swept the Northern Virginia suburbs, with its highly educated professional class dependent on defense-related jobs. If John Kasich hadn’t held down his margins, he would have won the state, which potentially would have reconfigured the race. Alas for Rubio and the party, the rest of the country doesn’t look like Northern Virginia.
And that points to Rubio’s real problem and the problem for the party going forward. It wasn’t that GOP voters abandoned Rubio. It’s that there aren’t enough moderates left in the party to propel a candidate like Rubio to victory, at least in the primaries. Both Rubio’s stiffness and flailing about for traction can been seen as symptoms of a candidate trying to appeal to various factions of the party that he wasn’t fundamentally comfortable with. If that’s the case, then the problem wasn’t so much Little Marco, but the party itself.