This time two years ago, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio stood in a studio, posing for a Time magazine cover declaring him “The Republican Savior.” The first-term senator from Miami was enjoying golden status in the party, with exciting rumors of a President Rubio in the near future. Polls showed that Rubio clearly led the pack — the 2016 GOP nomination was his to lose.
And lose it, he did.
Only weeks after that Time cover, Rubio made an ill-fated error: He embraced amnesty for millions of undocumented immigrants. Not only was he one of only four Republican senators selling the disastrous “Gang of 8” bill announced with much fanfare in April 2013, but he was the proud face of it, doing the heavy lifting, media appearances and pitches.
Conservatives were horrified — and angry. Like a cocky boxer caught unprepared for a devastating blow, Rubio found himself cornered, on the defensive, in contentious, unfamiliar territory. Worse, Rubio and his staff hit back, outright arguing, and at odds with, with his own base.
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Within days, Rubio had gone from “savior” to “traitor.”
How had it come to that?
A simple folly: Rubio overestimated his popularity and overplayed his hand.
Politics is nothing if not fickle, and anyone is vulnerable — even Time cover boys. As much as grassroots conservatives loved Rubio, they hated amnesty more.
The breakup was swift, and brutal. While Rubio had started the year at the top of the presidential dream list, by September 2013 his conservative support had plummeted as low as 7 percent and he was now being booed at several events.
Perhaps most tragically, Rubio’s effort was all for naught.
The legislation ultimately stalled and, while his advisers undoubtedly thought his amnesty push would at least help him with Hispanic voters, it failed to do so, with one poll finding Hispanics liked Rubio no more than Mitt “Illegals Can Self Deport” Romney, while another even found his standing had decreased among Hispanics.
Even a full year after Rubio’s error, some 2016 discussions excluded any mention of him, such as a March 2014 poll on the Drudge Report.
But luck, competition and absence can work miracles.
Luck? The Gang of 8 failed, and it’s certainly easier for conservatives to forgive and forget a failed attempt than a successful one. No harm, no foul! And President Obama’s executive action on immigration made him the “amnesty pusher,” not Rubio.
Competition? When objectively surveying the field, most GOP primary voters notice that almost all contenders are pro-immigration reform, in some form or other.
Absence? Bill Maher said it best once in regard to an overexposed actor’s career: “Go away so we have a chance to miss you.” Rubio did exactly that — keeping a low profile and his head down for most of the past 18 months, and distancing himself from immigration reform. While other candidates took the helm of the national media spotlight — and tripped up — he quietly continued making moves, but escaping scrutiny.
And if absence makes the heart grow fonder, so, too, does time heal all wounds, with conservatives’ anger — nearly two years old now — diminishing.
Jeb Bush’s recent PAC announcement created a flurry of contenders rushing to similarly declare their own intentions, and Rubio has jumped in, giving clear indications of his presidential aspirations: a national book tour, family-readiness remarks and dismissing the (foolish) notion that a Bush run would preclude his own.
As if on cue, just as the senator indicates he is serious about a run, a new poll shows him in second place, only three points behind leader Mitt Romney. Are Republican voters revisiting Rubio’s strengths against a potential Hillary Clinton candidacy?
Youth, a humble upbringing (crucial in a party defending individual wealth and tax cuts), fluency in Spanish, charisma and a strongly conservative record (aside from immigration reform) certainly make for a formidable candidate.
And while, after Iraq and Afghanistan, America is war-weary and skeptical of globetrotting intervention, the Paris terror attacks and ISIS have certainly helped Rubio, the most hawkish of the 2016 field, deflect concerns about his foreign-policy views.
At a Palm Springs event on Sunday night, hot on the heels of the promising second-place polling, Rubio seemed back in his element: confident, articulate and impressing donors, reporters, and viewers alike.
The buzz is back.
That Rubio has resurrected is certain — whether this phoenix will rise all the way to the White House, though, is the question that remains to be answered.
But if I had to bet? I wouldn’t throw out those TIME covers just yet.
A.J. Delgado is a Miami-based writer and lawyer. She writes about politics and culture.