Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign was premised in large part on the idea that the young, hopeful, charismatic Senator would provide a different, and appealing, look for a Republican Party struggling with a changing electorate. There are plenty of explanations for the collapse of his candidacy—his ground game was lacking, he had broad but shallow support, he (like everyone else) underestimated the threat posed by Donald Trump. But the failure of his campaign doesn’t merely reflect on his own decisions. It also calls into question whether Republican voters were ever much interested in pursuing the vision that he—and the party’s leadership—had laid out.
Rubio initially seemed the living embodiment of the GOP’s 2012 election post-mortem, which recommended, in essence, changing nothing at all but the party’s messaging and its stance on immigration. His immigration work with the Gang of Eight obviously blew up in his face almost immediately and had to be disavowed. But he rebounded politically and was a clear—and arguably should have been the clear—favorite of the GOP establishment as the presidential race got underway. He had a limited enough legislative history that (apart from immigration) he had few ideological heresies to answer for on his resume; he had Tea Party cred without too much Tea Party baggage; and he performed well in the GOP debates. But more fundamentally, he had three intrinsic assets, all of which aligned implicitly with the 2012 post-mortem—especially in contrast with Jeb Bush, his most obvious competitor for the mantle of Establishment Man: He was young, he was Latino, and he projected optimism about the future. In all, he was a laboratory-perfect tonic for avoiding the depressing outcome of a back-to-the-past battle between another Bush and another Clinton. Beltway Republicans (and Beltway Democrats, too) imagined that these traits would make Rubio an attractive, perhaps even formidable candidate.