Rubio Is Now the Grand Old Party’s Last Great Hope

Trump scores hitherto unimaginable victory in South Carolina while Bush’s exit heralds the demise of moderate Republican Party.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and 2016 presidential candidate, speaks during a South Carolina primary night rally in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S., on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and 2016 presidential candidate, speaks during a South Carolina primary night rally in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S., on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016. Credit: Bloomberg
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

After Donald Trump’s victory in the South Carolina primaries on Saturday night, various TV pundits presented this piece of historical trivia: no Republican has ever won both New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries without going on to become the GOP’s presidential candidate. Which means A. that Trump is on course to achieving the hitherto unbelievable or B. that like all the other predictions and projections that have been proffered since Trump entered this race this one will soon perish as well.

Be that as it may, on an evening in which Hillary Clinton’s victory in Nevada garnered a collective sigh of relief from the Democratic establishment, its Republican counterpart saw its worst nightmare get closer to coming true. Not only did Trump win all 50 delegates that South Carolina will send to the Republican National Convention in the summer, but GOP royal Jeb Bush, the establishment’s favorite son who amassed an astonishing $150 million war chest, got less than 8% of the vote and bowed out of the race. The party, to paraphrase Star Trek, was now in a place where no Republican had gone before.

Hillary Clinton speaks to supporters as her husband Bill Clinton applauds, after she was projected to be the winner in the Democratic caucuses in Las Vegas, Nevada February 20, 2016.Credit: Reuters

Trump has entrenched himself at the top of the GOP league, despite flouting all the known rules of the game on his way to the top. He insults women, Hispanics, African Americans and anyone else who gets within his sights. Not only does he irritate Mexico and challenge China for no good reason, he then quarrels with conservative superpower Fox News, tangles with George Bush and the legacy of 9/11 and trades insults with the immensely popular Pope Francis. He has no clearly defined policies, he contradicts today what he said yesterday and he often seems clueless about how, exactly, he plans to “make America great again.” Trump’s fans follow him because he fights political correctness tooth and nail, gets on the collective nerves of liberal America and talks like a real, anti-establishment straight shooter: they are apparently less bothered by what Trump actually has to say.

Like Bernie Sanders and the Democrats, Trump has injected new enthusiasm to the GOP electorate, but unlike Sanders and the Democrats, this has actually brought Republican participation in the primaries to new levels, with South Carolina breaking its own record on Saturday night, as Iowa and New Hampshire did before. The GOP establishment is convinced that this newfound zeal is less about Trump and more about the fervent Republican wish to retake the White House from the Democrats. They are confident that a GOP candidate can beat the scandal-ridden Clinton or the socialist Sanders with relative ease. They would probably be willing to ignore and absorb Trump’s daily abuse with greater ease if they thought he was the one. But they don’t.

Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.Credit: AFP

Now the GOP is pinning its hopes on the winnowing of the field, which has brought the field of candidates down from the original 17 to five or even three, depending on who’s being counted. Ohio Governor John Kasich hopes to feast on Bush’s electoral remains, do well in the GOP caucuses in Nevada on Tuesday, somehow survive Super Tuesday the following week and strike gold when the primaries finally get to his Midwest bastion: unlike Bush, he seems impervious to the notion that a GOP candidate cannot survive after getting only single digits in South Carolina. Ben Carson, who is also in the race apparently, is no longer operating in a rational political landscape: he seems to be staying in the race for kicks alone.

In practice, after South Carolina, Trump has only two competitors left: Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who finished in a virtual tie for second place in North Carolina. The GOP establishment and its benefactors will now line up behind the boyish Rubio, who will be branded as the kinder, gentler face of the Republican party, though, from a purely ideological point of view at least, this is no more than camouflage: after Trump’s victory and Bush’s departure, the relatively moderate wing of the GOP has been demolished. It exists no more. The right of center faction that produced Bush’s own father, George HW, presidential candidates such as John McCain and Bob Dole, former presidents Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, God forgive me, and, on some social and cultural issues, Ronald Reagan, will have expired. The options now on the table include a real estate tycoon with a flexible past, a racist attitude and an unruly mouth (Trump); a radical right Evangelical fundamentalist with a knack for alienating his peers (Cruz); and a charming but inexperienced senator who was invented by the Tea Party and who has expediently realigned himself with the most staunchly conservative wing of the GOP (Rubio). For a liberal/leftist American, the choice, to cite a famous Jewish saying, is between cholera, malaria and the plague.

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters at his 2016 South Carolina presidential primary night victory rally in Spartanburg, South Carolina February 20, 2016.Credit: Reuters

From the point of view of “who’s good for the Jews”, the question is which Jews we’re talking about. Cruz could probably find a home in the radical wing of Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, though his neo-isolationist views could pose a problem. Rubio the conservative neoconservative would feel right at home with Benjamin Netanyahu in today’s Likud, though Sheldon Adelson hasn’t given his official blessing yet. Trump should probably be the preferred candidate of Israeli lefties and American two-staters, if only because he is inconsistent and irreverent and always ready to slay a sacred cow or two and on condition that one is able to quench the stench of his chauvinist and racist statements.

Cruz did not do as well as expected among South Carolina Evangelicals and will have to pick up some Southern states taking part in Super Tuesday in order to revive his prospects. The establishment hopes that Rubio will reap the benefits of Bush’s departure, though Kasich may also be standing in the same line. And Trump, let’s not forget, becomes more and more credible in the eyes of wavering Republicans with each new victory he puts on his belt: Rubio, despite his airs, has yet to pick up anything approaching a victory.

He has recovered remarkably well from his seemingly inoperable bout of robotic repetitions that struck him in the debate before New Hampshire, courtesy of the also departed Chris Christie. Rubio learned his lesson and has grown more confident as he has managed to appear less programmed and scripted. But Trump and Cruz remain fierce rivals in the South while Trump still drubs him in the polls in other parts of the country. On Saturday night Rubio once again succeeded in casting his non-win in South Carolina as a victory that brings him to the very doorstep of the White House, as he did in Iowa, but there’s a limit to how many times he can sell and then resell the same whopper to his fans.

Rubio is now the Grand Old Party’s Great White Hope against Cruz and Trump, the barbarians at the gate. Trump knows this and will now be aiming the poison cannons that successfully eliminated Bush and neutralized Cruz against the Senator from Florida. After his South Carolina victory, Trump has morphed from the candidate who doesn’t stand a chance to the one who suddenly seems unstoppable. Other than his most ardent fans, most people still believe that something or someone will still prevent Trump from taking over the White House, but the ranks of potential candidates and scenarios grow smaller by the day.

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