Rubio is perhaps best understood in the context of these back-and-forth adjustments. As a Republican, he’s part of an electoral coalition dominated by older whites living in smaller cities and towns, the vast majority of whom are established Americans. It can be an awkward fit for Rubio, who as the son of working-class immigrant strivers has spent most of his life in the Spanish-speaking suburbs of Miami. Throughout his political career, he’s made the case that the fate of newcomers and of the established are bound together, and that a forward-looking conservatism can unite them. When addressing Tea Party stalwarts, he serves as reminder that there are newcomers who share their deepest beliefs. In more cosmopolitan environs, he represents the promise of a more culturally modern and pragmatic right. To do so, however, Rubio has had to speak different languages, literally and figuratively. And that’s become harder to do. In the Trump era, America’s political boundaries have become battle lines, and to cross them is to invite a ferocious reaction. Nevertheless, Rubio presses on.
Consider Rubio’s decision to take part in CNN’s Parkland town hall on Wednesday night. It was clear from the beginning that most of the attendees would be inclined to support more stringent gun regulations, and that no one would be cheering him on for defending gun rights in the wake of a school shooting that had touched almost everyone in the room. Making the case for an expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment at an NRA rally is one thing. Making it to a grieving parent who has just lost a child is quite another.
So why did Rubio take part in the event when, say, Rick Scott, the governor of Florida, did not? Maybe, though he knew he’d be loudly denounced, he felt he owed it to the families of Broward County to explain where he was coming from even as he listened to, and took in, their concerns. Broward County, like Rubio’s native Miami-Dade, is highly diverse, and it’s home to many affluent suburbanites who find it hard to relate to the conservatism of rural established Americans. The people gathered at the Parkland town hall were either newcomers themselves or people who’ve long since embraced a more cosmopolitan way of life, in which firearms have no symbolic appeal. Rubio knows this world well, yet he’s also accountable to millions of Floridians who have an entirely different relationship to guns. And so he had to somehow thread the needle. Over the course of the event, he did just that. Rubio defended the legitimacy of the NRA’s role in American politics, yet he also expressed openness to backing at least some new gun regulations, including some he had opposed as recently as earlier this week.
Inevitably, champions of gun rights were appalled by Rubio’s apparent surrender on raising the age limit to purchase a rifle, and his willingness to consider a ban on high-capacity magazines. Opponents of the NRA were equally incensed by Rubio’s failure to condemn the organization, and for not moving further in their direction. Left unnoticed is that he was, in his fitful way, working towards a position that just might represent a workable compromise between warring camps.