Republican Sen. Marco Rubio says Donald Trump is a "con artist" who ripped off ordinary people and now wants to steal "our country."
The Florida senator also said, in a debate Thursday night, along with all of his rivals, that he will support Trump if the businessman wins the Republican nomination.
How could both statements possibly be true? As an answer, we have Rubio's somber explanation, and also an example from history.
"You've just described the quandary that we're in," Rubio told me Friday on Morning Edition. "I think Hillary Clinton's a danger to our country, too. ... Hillary Clinton is so bad," he said, that he would vote for Trump to oppose her.
The question still lingers. There have been cases of professional politicians bolting their party over a nominee they considered unacceptable; the most spectacular example came in 1912. Former President Theodore Roosevelt turned against his fellow Republican, incumbent President William Howard Taft, and ran under the banner of his own, new party. Roosevelt and Taft split the GOP vote, which wrecked them both and led to the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
Why wouldn't Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz or Ohio Gov. John Kasich threaten to do that? An answer may lie in the logic of political tribalism. We can see that logic at work in an incident earlier in Roosevelt's career.
In 1884, Roosevelt was a rising young Republican politician. He was only in his mid-20s, but already a prominent figure in the New York State Legislature. He wanted to reform his party, which had grown corrupt in the Gilded Age.
Roosevelt resolved that he must block the man who was in line for the Republican nomination — James G. Blaine of Maine. Blaine was a symbol of the corrupt Republican old guard and was widely believed to have personally profited from his work as speaker of the House.
Young Roosevelt and his allies failed to stop Blaine, who was nominated at the GOP convention in 1884. Roosevelt was horrified. Afterward he wrote: "It may be that the voice of the people is the voice of God in fifty-one cases out of a hundred," but otherwise it might be "the voice of the devil" or of "a fool." Roosevelt even told a reporter in private that "any proper Democratic nominee will have our hearty support."
Yet a few weeks later, Roosevelt said he would support Blaine after all. "I have been called a reformer, but I am a Republican," he said.
Why? Roosevelt biographer Henry F. Pringle wrote: "Certainly no young man beginning a political career ever found himself in a sadder position than Roosevelt in June, 1884." Pringle concluded that Roosevelt had acted out of personal pragmatism: Had he bolted his party, he would have destroyed his own career. Democrats would have welcomed him for as long as he was useful to them, but afterward would drop him, and "he would have been the saddest of public figures, a politician without a party." His great career would have been stunted.
Roosevelt, of course, never admitted that he was bending his principles for ambition. Instead he convinced himself that the Democrat, Grover Cleveland, was even more corrupt than Blaine, and he campaigned for the Republican ticket on those grounds.
There may have been a still deeper reason, though. Blaine, on reflection, was deeply flawed but not a genuine threat to the nation or to democracy itself. He was a capable politician who did not seem likely to disrupt much of anything if elected. In any case, he lost the election and never became president, as the canny Roosevelt probably foresaw.
A more agonizing choice exists for today's Republicans, some of whom have begun arguing that Trump is not merely a bad candidate but an actual danger to their party, to democracy and to the stability of the nation. The more they accept the harshest case against Trump, the harder it will be to explain their loyal support.
Roosevelt's 1884 tale nevertheless offers some insight. It also makes it striking that a few prominent Republicans have vowed never to vote for Trump. They include not only party grandees, but also Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska. He is comparatively young for a senator; at age 44, he is around the same age as Rubio and Cruz, and he was just elected to the Senate in 2014. He has declared that Trump's "relentless focus is on dividing Americans, and on tearing down rather than building back up this glorious nation," and says he would never vote for him. Sasse accused Trump of a "creepy" desire for the power of a king.
Sasse, like young Theodore Roosevelt, may well have a long career ahead of him. His choice could plausibly put his career at risk — the same risk Roosevelt once dodged. Or he could end up writing new rules for the tribal game that is politics.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is on the line with us on this morning after a Republican debate. Senator, welcome back to the program.
MARCO RUBIO: Thank you, Steve. Thanks for having me on.
INSKEEP: Do you feel like you've find the proper way, now, to take down Donald Trump?
RUBIO: Well, I think he has to be confronted. Look, the man is a vulgarian (ph). He's brought in the most vulgar things you can imagine throughout this campaign. I don't think I've ever seen anything like it. And unfortunately, you know, it's gotten a lot of attention in the media because it drives ratings. But he needs - you can't just allow him to run loose and attack people. But I still continue to hold out hope that we can continue to have debates about serious public policy. I mean, I built my entire career on that. I'm constantly trying to inject - that's why I do a lot of interviews here with you on NPR because we talk about policy. But I hope we can get back to that because that's what this election should be about.
INSKEEP: I do appreciate talking with you from time to time, but what do you think when people say that in recent days, you've become as crude as Trump?
RUBIO: Well, I think that's not accurate. Please, I mean, you can't - that's not even possible to be as crude as Trump. I've made a couple of jokes over the last week because he needs to be - at some point, when someone has gone around for 12 months personally offending not just everyone in the race but women and minorities and the disabled, at some point, someone's got to stand up and say, you know, hey, enough is enough. If you think you're going to attack people, you're going to get hit back. But that's not the core of my message. Ninety-nine percent of the words out of my mouth have still to do about public policy and the direction of our country, and that's what I hope this interview will be about. That's what I had hoped the debate would have been about last night.
INSKEEP: Well, what do you think when polls in your home state of Florida, where people know you well and have listened to your message - those polls show Trump up by an average of 19 points, according to RealClearPolitics.
RUBIO: Yeah, they're not accurate. And Florida is what it is. I mean, we were down 25 points, apparently, in Virginia, and ended up just falling behind by two, getting almost the same number of delegates as he did. I think he got 17. I got 16 - would have won Virginia outright had the ballot been a little narrower. We're going to win Florida. I'm very confident of that. It's going to be a lot of hard work. Every state this year is going to be a lot of hard work. I mean, this is just a very unusual election, but it is what it is. And we feel confident about it. But we're - you know, we know there's a lot of work ahead. I'm an underdog, not - you know, in Florida, across the country. It's a role that I relish. It's the role I've always played in my life. I didn't inherit millions of dollars like Donald Trump.
INSKEEP: Well, not only is this an unusual campaign, it was a very unusual day in which Mitt Romney, the 2012 nominee, said that Donald Trump is a danger to your party and a danger to the country. If he's right - if Donald Trump is actually a danger to democracy because of the way that he talks, because of his attitudes - why on earth did you say on stage last night that you would support him if he was nominated?
RUBIO: Yeah, I mean, you just described the quandary that we're in. I think that Clinton's a danger to our country too. And what I want to avoid is having to choose between the lesser of two, you know, terrible choices. That's what - I want us to be excited about our nominee. I don't want the Republican nominee to be someone that people have to make excuses why they're voting for them. I mean, what does that tell you when the Republican front-runner is someone that people are having - being asked constantly, would you support them if they win?
INSKEEP: Well what excuses - forgive me, what excuses would you make if you're forced to support him because you said you would?
RUBIO: Yeah, I get it. Look, I get it. I get the question you're asking me. He makes it hard to answer that question because of the way he behaves. So here's what I'm going to focus on - making sure that I'm the nominee and not him. And then we'll cross that bridge - bottom line is I think Hillary Clinton is so bad that if someone votes for Donald Trump, it won't be because he's great, it's because she's that bad.
INSKEEP: Now, you say you want to be the nominee. You said on CNN earlier this morning you hope to win the nomination outright - naturally you do, and there's a lot of delegates still out there - but that you're ready for a contested convention where nobody has a majority and everybody fights it out. I want to ask about a principle there. Should the candidate who gets the most delegates, even if it's not a majority, be nominated by a contested convention if it gets to that?
RUBIO: Well, we're not at that point. I don't know how that's going to play out. I think it's quite likely that - it looks at this point very difficult for anyone in this race to get to 1,237 delegates unless something dramatic happens over the next 15 or 20 days. We'll see how that plays out. I'm not in favor of what they call a brokered convention because that signifies that there's some sort of backroom deal between party bosses where someone who hasn't even been on the ballot, hasn't gone through the process, just parachutes in. So we'll see how that plays out. There's rules in place for this. This is not something outside the rule system. There is a system in place for this to be dealt with. And if it comes to that, it'll be dealt with. But right now, the hope continues to be that at some point in this process, someone will emerge that we can coalesce around. And even if that person doesn't have 1,237 delegates, it's the people everyone wants at the convention. We'll have to earn that, of course. We're still hard of that process. I continue to say I am the only one left who can unite the Republican Party and grow it. But obviously, this is going to be a long and very different campaign from anything you've covered or anything we've seen in a long time.
INSKEEP: Why would that person not be Ted Cruz, who's won more states than you?
RUBIO: Well, look, I like Ted. I don't think Ted can unify the entire Republican Party. I just don't. I don't believe he can grow it. In fact, I know he can't. And the polls - that's why the polls consistently show that I beat Hillary Clinton by more than anyone else in this race. And that matters. And that shows you that I have the opportunity not just to unite the party and all of its different divisions but also to grow it. And that's important. We've got to grow the conservative movement. We've got to bring more people into the conservative movement. I know I can do that, it's just - you know, it's a very unusual political cycle. But it is what it is, and we'll continue to work through it. We feel good about.
INSKEEP: Sen. Rubio, I know you've got to move on in a very busy morning, but thanks very much for your time.
RUBIO: Thank you for having me on.
INSKEEP: Marco Rubio, Florida senator, who is one of the contenders who was on the debate stage last night. Three contenders effectively teaming up in different ways against Donald Trump. NPR's congressional correspondent Sue Davis has been following this campaign. She's in our studios. Sue, good morning to you.
SUE DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: What did you hear there that struck you?
DAVIS: It is - we are at remarkable moment in this campaign where party leaders and the opponents to the frontrunner nomination are now actively trying to stop him from getting the nomination. It seems last night that Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz signed a nonaggression pact. They seemed to have joined forces to try and take down Donald Trump. But the fact that Marco Rubio is now openly talking about contested convention may be the way to go, and that this may have to be fought on the floor in Cleveland, is a remarkable new chapter in this campaign.
INSKEEP: Well, here's a question that maybe if you're a Trump supporter you're asking. Maybe if you're not even a Trump supporter, you're just interested in democracy in a certain way, the question can be asked, why should party elites - why should Mitt Romney, why should party leaders - be getting in the way of the choice of the people?
DAVIS: Exactly, and this is where a lot of the strength of the Trump movement comes from. Remember, a lot of Trump voters look at party leaders as as much the problem as Democrats. And whether this strategy's going to work, we don't have to wait until Florida, we don't have to wait until his home state. Republicans are going to have four contests tomorrow in Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Maine. These are closed Republican contests, which means only Republican voters get to vote in them. It's a more pure contest. And if Trump walks out of there the winner as well tomorrow, it's going to just show how tough the task is for people like Marco Rubio to take him down.
INSKEEP: Just a couple seconds - two days ago on this program, you used the phrase civil war to describe the Republican Party. Is that now where we're at?
INSKEEP: Sue, thanks very much. That's NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis on this morning after a contentious Republican presidential debate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.