So, that happened. In the parallel universe where reality television star Donald Trump never brought his hallucinatory meth-spectacle to the Republican primary, you have to imagine that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is faring much better. Maybe not in the electoral sense, but almost certainly in the psychic sense. Surely he's not being slowly ground into dust by the daily trials of participating in the "Trial and Persecution of the GOP Establishment as Directed by Donald Trump and the Inmates of the Stormfront Message Boards."
Alas, that's what's happening to him in our universe, along with thresholds left unmet, delegates left unclaimed and a looming doom in the Florida primary. But with nowhere left to go but Thursday night's debate at the University of Miami, that's where Rubio went. And it would seem that he brought a lot of sedatives with him.
It seems, in this fast-moving festival of schadenfreude and hurt feelings, like it was only mere hours ago that Rubio became the chosen avatar of the anti-Trump establishment, urged to rush into battle with Trump to reclaim the dignity lost by everyone. It hasn't moved the needle. Rubio ended up shut out of last week's primaries. Rather than present himself as a vital member of the anti-Trump squad, he's become the candidate who's in the way of that effort. And with his last hopes hanging on next week's Florida primary, the polling numbers have done just enough twitching, hither and yon, to extend what almost certainly looks like false hope.
If anything, Rubio's other compatriots have made the gains he'd hoped to have consolidated by now. Ohio Gov. John Kasich has come through the war of attrition in better standing, and has a better shot at denying Trump a win in his home state than Rubio offers right now. Meanwhile, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz managed to make some delegate gains, and the GOP's Beltway careerists, whom Cruz has spent his entire Senate term alienating, have begun to signal that they might come around. (One wonders what the race is like in the parallel universe where Cruz didn't dedicate himself to being a haughty jackass to his colleagues with quite as much fervor as he has in ours.)
Thursday night's debate offered Rubio his last opportunity to play a card he'd not yet played in his quest to prevent the man he's correctly identified as a "con artist" from taking his party's presidential nomination.
The card he chose to play Thursday? Sedated statesman.
It would appear that Rubio really doesn't know what to do anymore, having been urged repeatedly to zig and zag in different stylistic directions over the past month. Thursday, he backed away from calling Trump a fraud. He more or less backed away from fighting with Trump at all.
It looked like his "play" was to impress his home state voters with gravitas. And it may have struck a contrast, had Trump been up to his typically unruly antics. But, he wasn't. (When your campaign adviser is out on the trail assaulting reporters, it perhaps creates an urgent need for better behavior.)
One exchange that exemplified the interplay between Rubio and Trump came about two-thirds of the way into the debate's first hour, as the conversation shifted to Social Security. Trump, who is campaigning on a promise to not touch the entitlement program, was asked how he could make that promise without any sort of reform.
"I will do everything within my power not to touch Social Security, to leave it the way it is," Trump said, going on to promise "to make this country rich again; to bring back our jobs; to get rid of deficits; to get rid of waste, fraud and abuse, which is rampant in this country, rampant, totally rampant."
CNN's Dana Bash challenged him immediately on the "waste, fraud and abuse" line, noting correctly that eliminating those things isn't enough to close the gap that some are talking about. Trump flailed, giving a rather incoherent answer about how the United States was the "policeman of the world," that gets nothing in return for its overseas military expenditures or military assistance. He then suggested that any future Social Security insolvency problem would be solved by his magical wheeler-dealing skills: "We are going to be in a different world. We're going to negotiate real deals now, and we're going to bring the wealth back to our country."
The stage was thus set for Rubio to point out that Trump is living up to his "con-artist" billing. Instead, Rubio gave a "low-energy" answer:
BASH: Senator Rubio, will that be enough to save Social Security?
RUBIO: No. And I -- and I think you've outlined why. The numbers don't add up. You know, when I ran for the Senate in 2010, I came out and said we're going to have to make changes to Social Security, and everyone said that's the end of your campaign. In Florida, you can't talk about that, but people know that it's the truth here in Florida.
Fraud is not enough. Certainly, let's wipe out the fraud, but as you said, it won't add up. You already gave those numbers. The second point is on foreign aid. I hear that all the time as well. I'm against any sort of wasting of money on foreign aid, but it's less than 1 percent of our federal budget. The numbers don't add up.
The bottom line is we can't just continue to tip-toe around this and throw out things like I'm going to get at fraud and abuse. Let's get rid of fraud, let's get rid of abuse, let's be more careful about how we spend foreign aid. But you still have hundreds of billions of dollars of deficit that you're going to have to make up.
And so it came to pass that any Flordians watching at home got to watch their senator gravely pledge to raise the retirement age, while Trump sold them a bill of goods about how he'd reclaim wealth for everyone.
Rubio became briefly animated when the conversation turned to Cuba, allowing him to demonstrate that he both cared and knew more about U.S.-Cuba relations than Trump. But once again, his response was not pitched at Trump as an invitation to enter into conflict, and so the moment passed.
Of course, it should be pointed out that Rubio was by no means the only candidate who seemed anesthetized during the debate. Tonight was a night where John Kasich's genial low-key chill way of debating made him look positively energetic. One of the night's more torpid moments involved Trump taking a question about violence at his rallies, in which he offered that populist anger made his supporters' violence admissible. His competitors, in turn, just didn't seem to have the energy to object. It was a fine night for authoritarianism all around.
For his part, Cruz seemed to be more willing to needle Trump during the proceedings, but his was nevertheless a mannered, debating-society style of argumentation. No one on the stage really sought to match the pyrotechnic heights that have been a feature of previous debates. Trump, pivoting even now in the direction of patching things up with the GOP establishment, was uncharacteristically decorous from pillar to post.
And Rubio? Well, he looked for all the world like a man who knew his race was run and done, the only prize left to claim being a small portion of dignity.
It's been a strange career for Rubio. As Jonathan Chait pointed out Thursday, the Florida senator has now on two occasions attempted to be his party's young lion. First he tried to assist the Republican National Committee in getting a comprehensive immigration reform bill passed. (He was the Gang of Eight's go-to guy in selling the bill to right-wing talk radio.) Then he tried to defeat Trump. In both cases, he ran headlong into enemy fire at the urging of others, because no one else would.
A fat lot of good it did him. Still, perhaps he has a bright future.
Elsewhere on this week's podcast, the intensity of the Democratic nomination race got ratcheted up another hundred notches or so after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) scored a surprise win in the Michigan primary that flummoxed the pollsters, boosted the senator's chances and put the Hillary Clinton's campaign back into arrears.
Meanwhile, the Flint water crisis has shone a light on what life is like in poorer cities and the infrastructural problems that need fixing across the nation. But now that the Michigan primary is over and Flint is no longer a campaign talking point, are we poised to forget about our nation's lead pipe problem just as attention is cresting?
Finally, the biggest threat to reproductive freedoms in two decades is currently before the Supreme Court, and it comes in the form of some restrictions on abortion providers that have long ventured over the border of absurdity into pure, mountain-grown disingenuousness. We'll explain what's happening and why. Plus, we'll answer the question: Can we still enjoy the NCAA basketball tournament when we know that the NCAA itself is a corrupt and exploitative cartel?
"So, That Happened" is hosted by Jason Linkins, Zach Carter and Arthur Delaney. Joining them this week is Amal Eldarat, comedian Anthony Atamaniuk, and Huffington Post reporters Akbar Ahmed and Lauren Weber.
This podcast was produced, edited and engineered by Christine Conetta.