Marco Rubio's Defense of Comity

The Florida senator defended the controversial silencing of Elizabeth Warren—but were his words substantially aimed at someone else?

Reuters / Saul Loeb

Marco Rubio did something unexpected on Wednesday.

If you reflect on Adam Serwer’s dissection of the civil-rights credentials that Republicans fabricated for Senator Jeff Sessions when he was nominated to be attorney general; the scathing 1986 letter that Coretta Scott King sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee, imploring them not to confirm Sessions as a federal judge due to his callous opposition to civil-rights activists; the attempt Elizabeth Warren made to read King’s letter during Senate debate about whether to confirm Sessions as attorney general; and the widespread anger Mitch McConnell evoked when shutting her down with a procedural rule against impugning a fellow senator; then it might surprise you that Rubio, a swing-state senator who trades on his moderate image, would make a public spectacle of standing with the GOP here.

Yet the Florida lawmaker took to the Senate floor, ostentatiously defending the censoring of his Democratic colleague (albeit before the backlash), by giving a short speech in defense of rules on comity:

Did he pull it off?

“Turn on the news and watch these parliaments around the world where people throw chairs at each other, and punches, and ask yourself how does that make you feel about those countries?” Rubio said. “It doesn't give you a lot of confidence about those countries. Now I’m not arguing that we're anywhere near that here tonight, but we're flirting with it. We're flirting with it in this body and we are flirting with it in this country. We have become a society incapable of having debates anymore.”

He continued:

In this country, if you watch the big policy debates that are going on in America, no one ever stops to say, “I think you're wrong, I understand your point of view—I get it. You have some valid points, but let me tell you why I think my view is better.” I don't hear that anymore. Here’s what I hear, almost automatically, and let me be fair, from both sides of these debates. Immediately, immediately, as soon as you offer an idea, the other side jumps and says, “The reason why you say that is because you say you don't care about poor people, because you only care about rich people, because you're this, or you’re that or you’re the other.” And I'm just telling you guys, we are reaching a point in this republic where we're not going to be able to solve the simplest of issues because everyone is putting themselves in a corner where everyone hates everybody.

Rubio argued that his forbearers in the Senate “understood that that debate was impossible if in fact matters became of a personal nature,” and that “this body cannot function if people are offending one another, and that’s why those rules are in place.” He expressed gratitude that when Hillary Clinton and John Kerry were nominated for cabinet positions, their characters were not impugned during Senate debate, even though so many partisans have such strong feelings about them.

He made the case that decorum in the Senate is one of the things that makes possible the smooth functioning of an institution that is a lynchpin of American democracy. “If we lose this body’s ability to conduct debate in a dignified manner,” he concluded, “then where in this country is that going to happen? What other forum in this nation is that going to be possible?” He added: “If this body is incapable of having those debates, there will be no place in this country where those debates can occur. I think every single one of us, to our great shame, will live to regret it.”

Now, it is possible to agree that comity is important, and to applaud a reminder of its importance at a time when the nation is short on constructive disagreement, without believing that Senator Warren should have been silenced. Surely typical debate among senators—when it is best to focus on the substance of policy and avoid attacks on people—can be distinguished from a debate about whether one among them is morally fit to be confirmed to a position in the executive branch. Surely it is important to have a frank, fully informed debate about anyone appointed to a position as powerful as attorney general. Surely if a senator nominated to that position has done awful things, the best course is not to simply pretend they never happened or that a robust debate can occur while observing that conceit.

If robust debates in those rare, unique circumstances really threaten the institution, then senators should be forced to resign before their nominations are debated. To simply subject senators to less scrutiny smacks of self-serving corruption. At a time when faith in the legislature is low that too is a fraught course.

Yet despite believing that Rubio is decisively wrong in this case—that he could’ve found three dozen better pegs to make a case for comity and civility in our political culture—I do hope Rubio’s general reminder about the value of comity does good. “I think what’s at stake here tonight and as we debate going forward is not simply some rule, but the ability of the most important nation on earth to debate, in a productive and respectful way, the pressing issues before us,” he said.

That is an urgent concern.

I also wonder if his remarks were substantially, if rather coyly, aimed at Donald Trump. “If the Senate ceases to work... given everything else that is going on in politics today, where you are basically allowed to say just about anything...” he said. “For I have seen over the last year and half things said about people, about issues, about institutions in our republic, that I never thought I would see. Ever. Ever.”

What might “Little Marco” be referencing?

That’s when I had a sudden vision of the Florida senator who promised he wouldn’t run for president again, but felt compelled to announce he would challenge Trump, or depending on events, Mike Pence, in the 2020 Republican primary, “in the hope of restoring honor to the White House, pride to the U.S. Armed Forces, and comity to the American people, who used to get along well enough to cooperate despite their disagreements.”

That’s as likely a play for the White House as any, right?

If I seem cynical, I do think Rubio truly believes in conducting himself with more comity than many—certainly more than Trump. And we all know, for all his lofty words about the body he nearly quit, that Rubio would rather be president. If Trump wins reelection, the chances that Rubio gets elected next are slim. Jeb Bush isn’t coming back in 2020. Ted Cruz has ruined any reputation he had for being principled (and if he seems like a threat, Trump can appoint him to the Supreme Court). The odds of any prediction being correct this far out are long, so I’ll put it this way: I can’t imagine Trump running unopposed for the GOP nomination, and I don’t see anyone better positioned than Rubio to run.