A lot of people expected Florida Sen. Marco Rubio to break out of the pack of Republican presidential candidates this summer, much the way Sen. Barack Obama emerged as the most serious threat to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination eight years ago. That would make him the biggest victim of Donald Trump, who is now sucking up news coverage like a gold-plated Electrolux.
During last week’s debate, Rubio came close to channeling Richard Nixon in his assertion that his humble beginnings would be the perfect weapon against elitist Democrats like Hillary Clinton. “If I’m our nominee,” Rubio said, “how is Hillary Clinton gonna lecture me about living paycheck to paycheck? I was raised paycheck to paycheck. How is she…gonna lecture me about student loans? I owed over $100,000 just four years ago.” Whatever else happens in a Rubio administration, he seemed to be saying, voters could enjoy a bit of class-warfare glee at sending the Kennedys back to Hyannis Port—er, the Clintons back to Chappaqua—in defeat.
Rubio is also distinguishing himself through his opposition to abortion, using language that is strikingly uncompromising even in the Republican Party (though not more so than several other GOP presidential candidates, including Scott Walker and Mike Huckabee). In the debate, he called for an abortion ban without exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest. On Meet the Press a few days later, he did not waffle when pondering a conflict between what he called a woman’s “right to make decisions about her own health and her own future” and “the right of a human being to live.”
He elaborated: “Listen, you’re 15 years old, and you become pregnant, and you’re scared, and you have your whole life ahead of you, and you’re facing this, that is a hard situation. I tell people all the time, don’t pretend this is easy. This is a difficult question. But when asked to make a decision between two very hard circumstances, I’ve personally reached the conclusion that if I’m going to err, I’m going to err on the side of life.”
This is the kind of tough talk that Trump claims to be famous for, and it could get Rubio a few more volunteers in Iowa, which could lead to a better-than-expected showing there… (But it may not him much in New Hampshire, which is more secular and more culturally liberal even among people who vote in Republican primaries.)
Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum credits Rubio with not “fudging” the issue: “If you support a rape or incest exception, it’s pretty obvious you don't really think of abortion as murder.” Nevertheless, he writes, most voters (even most Republicans) do support exceptions for rape and incest, which makes honesty and moral consistency a pretty big risk for Rubio and several other Republican candidates.
There’s also a danger in seeming to talk past women. The campaign to defund Planned Parenthood, following the revelation of videos in which staffers causally discussed the sale of fetal tissue resulting from abortions, has been notable for squeamishness about the decision-making process on the part of Planned Parenthood’s clients. “Defunding Planned Parenthood is not the same as repealing the right to abortion,” wrote Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, here at America’s website. But a strategy of shutting down abortion providers, either by cutting off their funding or by imposing requirements that make them impractical to operate, can be seen as a way to make any legal right irrelevant—and to ensure that few women have any option but to “choose life.”
Rubio does deserve credit for consistency. But even his Meet the Press answer reflected nervousness about how to address women voters. Take the switch in pronouns: “Listen, you’re 15 years old, and you become pregnant, and you’re scared… I’ve personally reached the conclusion that if I’m going to err, I’m going to err on the side of life.” Why not continue in the second person, telling the hypothetical teenager, “You must err on the side of life”?
It’s also a cheat for Rubio to make an example of a 15-year-old girl, since almost everyone agrees that someone of that age is not mature enough to make any important decision without guidance from adults. It would be more illuminating to hear Rubio address the situation of a 40-year-old woman with an unexpected pregnancy, someone who might have to interrupt or end a career because of complications associated with childbirth. For Rubio to say, “I’m going to err on the side of life” in that situation is more provocative, and it carries more political risk, not only in a general election but also in Republican primaries open to independent voters (such as New Hampshire). He could win admirers even among ideological opponents like Kevin Drum for his honesty; unfortunately for Rubio, they won’t be delegates at the Republican convention.