Sen. Marco Rubio plays fast and loose with his pledge not to run

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Sen. Marco Rubio reversed his position and said Wednesday he will run for re-election to the Senate.
Sen. Marco Rubio reversed his position and said Wednesday he will run for re-election to the Senate. AP

After spending a year telling anyone who asked that he really couldn’t stand being in the U.S. Senate, given how it’s so ineffective and such a waste of time, all of a sudden Marco Rubio has undergone an epiphany. He wants back in!

Hard to believe, isn’t it? After all, this is the same candidate who said back on Oct. 20 that he would not return to the upper chamber: “In November of next year, I will either be the president of the United States or a private citizen again, because I have a sense of urgency.”

No two ways of reading that, or any of the other pledges he made not to seek reelection. Been there, done that. No more Senate for me, thank you very much. Adios, Capitol Hill. He repeated some version of that promise throughout the presidential campaign.

But it all came to a crashing end on March 15 when Donald Trump trounced him in the Florida primary by beating the state’s Republican senator in 66 out of 67 counties — only Miami-Dade came through. It was a humiliating defeat, an “utter rout” as Herald political writers labeled it.

The official version is that Mr. Rubio was torn over this decision to get back in. He really, really wanted out, his friends say. But the Republican Party, sensing that Donald Trump could drag down the entire ticket and lose the party’s majority in the Senate, prevailed on the reluctant young senator to change his mind. We need you, they said, and he finally gave in.

At least one part of that story rings true. The Republican Party fears that Donald Trump has so alienated the American electorate that he’ll hand Congress back to the Democrats. The Senate majority hangs in the balance, and Marco Rubio is seen as the party’s best bet in Florida. By Wednesday afternoon, polls confirmed that Mr. Rubio was the instant frontrunner.

But his flip-flop will seem too pat, too orchestrated, too opportunistic to anyone not firmly planted in the Rubio camp. The sudden switch puts his honesty into question. How can he persuade voters that he will be an effective champion for Florida after he’s said that the Senate is no place for anyone who wants to get things done? The famously impatient senator told one interviewer during the campaign that he couldn’t stay there because he was too “frustrated.”

Sen. Rubio has explained that he felt a call to duty after a gunman carried out the largest mass shooting in modern times in Orlando. That made him reconsider his promise not to run again. Yet he’s still a sitting senator. If he couldn’t prevent it now, how will running for another term change anything? Especially since he voted the straight NRA line this week by nixing all efforts to impose sensible control on firearms.

These are the sorts of questions and issues the senator will have to deal with going forward. How can voters be sure that he’s not just positioning himself for another run for president in 2020? He disavowed any such intention in a cable TV interview on Wednesday, but given his U-turn on the pledge not to run for reelection, many Floridians won’t buy it.

Mr. Rubio won the Herald’s recommendation in the presidential primary back in March because we believed he was the best practical option for Florida Republican voters in that race. But context is everything. This is a different race with different contenders. At least two GOP contenders for the Senate seat have already dropped out, but those who remain have a right to be heard and considered.

Voters don’t want an anointed candidate, and they don’t want to give the Senate seat to a candidate as a consolation prize for losing the presidential primary. Mr. Rubio has his work cut out for him — and a lot of skepticism to overcome.