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Will Marco Rubio Finally Be Tested?

His positions are different in kind, and more extreme, than those of recent Republican nominees, but have received no scrutiny. Maybe that will change in Saturday's debate.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Before the Iowa caucuses, the questions facing Republican Party elites were straightforward but existential: Could the divided field of establishment-backed candidates consolidate in time to stop Donald Trump and Ted Cruz? And, if so, would the consolidation be tidy enough to vault a single tribune into the top tier?

To the delight of the GOP elites, the results in Iowa—and the effect they’ve had on the campaign—have begun to answer those questions, almost entirely to their satisfaction. But by thrusting the primary into a dramatically new phase, the Iowa caucuses have raised a new set of questions, which hinge less on what the outcome of the delegate race will be than on what, if any, long-term damage the party will suffer as a result of its Trumpification. 

The point of overlap between the old and new questions should also be the point of focus in Saturday’s Republican primary debate. And that is: By making “Anyone But Trump and Cruz” an organizing principle—by working to absorb their insurgencies rather than stamp them out—has the GOP picked a strategy that solves its short-term problems at the expense of longer-term ones?

It’s only been five days since the caucuses, but the immediate consequences have been fairly dramatic. Marco Rubio has transformed a better-than-expected, less-than-distant third-place finish into an infusion of cash and endorsements, along with a dramatic turnaround in New Hampshire polls, where he’d recently been cratering. Nationally, he and Cruz have capitalized on Trump’s downward correction, as well as a swift drop in undecided voters. It doesn’t settle the case, but it does suggest it’s possible for Rubio to be the overwhelming beneficiary of Jeb Bush’s, Chris Christie’s, and John Kasich’s misfortunes.

If these trends continue, the primary will evolve either into a three-man race between Trump, Cruz, and Rubio—or, should Trump fail again to capitalize on his polling advantage—a two-man race between Cruz and Rubio.

Rubio’s pitch to Republican voters is now not simply based on his perceived electability in a race against Hillary Clinton, but in his power to unite his own party—to draw disaffected, establishment-hating white voters back into the fold after their preferred candidates fade. As if to assist him in that case, most Republican candidates (save Cruz) have spent the days since Iowa harping on Rubio’s inexperience and lack of accomplishment, rather than his multiple amnesty volte-faces, while Trump has directed nearly all of his considerable firepower on Cruz, who isn’t anywhere close to threatening him in New Hampshire. 

But here’s where the new concerns arise. In one crucial sense, Rubio is right. He has landed near the sweet spot between Cruz-like extremism, Trump-like nativism, and Jeb Bush’s more principled rejection of both factions of the right. But to get there, he’s attached himself to policy proposals that are different in kind, and more extreme, than those of recent Republican nominees. Now Rubio threatens to smuggle them into the general election undetected by a press corps that has been fixated on Trump.

Over the past several months, Rubio has:

  • Introduced a tax plan that literally zeroes out investment and inheritance taxes (in addition to reducing the income-tax burden of top earners by more than 10 percent). “His tax plan breaks with past establishment Republican candidates for president in its extreme generosity to taxpayers who derive their income from investments rather than work,” writes New York Times correspondent Josh Barro. “In many cases … business owners would pay a lower tax rate on profits than their employees would pay on their wages—even after counting both taxes paid by the business and those paid by the business owner directly.”
  • Recklessly suggested ethnically profiling Muslims through their mosques, community centers, businesses, and the web. He accused President Obama of pitting Americans against one another by visiting a mosque, seemingly articulating the principle that presidents shouldn’t visit mosques because the millions of Americans whose votes Rubio wants dislike Muslims.
  • Denied the fact that “human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it.”
  • Disowned his most important legislative accomplishment.

This kind of strategic positioning is technical enough to be shielded from scrutiny when other, better-polling candidates are calling Mexicans rapists and promising to make the Middle East sands glow. But they would come to define Rubio in a race against a Democrat. 

Rubio’s a smooth talker. But he’s never really had to square his appeal to electability with the fact that he’s further right than Mitt Romney on almost every issue, and further right than Trump and Cruz on at least some. On Saturday night, maybe, he will.