To paraphrase Bill Burroughs, the late junkie novelist, beware of salesmen who don’t want money. What they mean is they want more money. Much more. It’s a line to hold in mind while watching the Sunday political talk shows, a medium that requires a false humility from many of its guests, especially when those guests are preparing campaigns for higher office. The interviews are high-profile campaign stops. But by tradition, the candidates or would-be candidates must pretend political calculation has no place in their thinking.
And so we come to Marco Rubio, a junior Senator from Florida, who broke a record on Sunday by appearing on seven Sunday network shows to sell this week’s Senate proposal to reform the nation’s immigration rules. Running the table like this was once called the “Full Ginsburg,” after William H. Ginsburg who first showed the feat was possible in 1998, when he appeared as the attorney to Monica Lewinsky on all five network Sunday shows—ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox News and CNN. Since then, Wikipedia says that 16 officials have done the Full Ginsburg. But none before had ever done the basic five and both Spanish-language networks, Univision and Telemundo. Rubio did all that, and he did the two Spanish networks in Spanish. A Full Rubio.
The ostensible topic this Sunday was immigration reform, for which Rubio has become the flag bearer of a bipartisan solution. But as he repeated his soundbites over and over again, delivering the same lines in two languages on gun control, Jay-Z in Cuba and why a path to citizenship is not the “amnesty” his critics say it is, it became clear that the real topic was Marco Rubio, an emerging poster child for a possible future of the Republican Party, Spanish speaking, post-“self-deportation,” populist, empathetic, potentially transformational in 2016. “We are not the party of the people who made it,” said Rubio on Meet The Press, in one of his several ear-catching refrains.
In the tradition of many before him, however, Rubio refused to admit the obvious. Politics? What politics? “Do you think this would help or hurt Marco Rubio if he perhaps ran for president in 2016?” asked Candy Crowley on CNN’s State of the Union. “You know, I haven’t even thought about it in that way. And I know it’s hard to believe,” he answered without missing a beat. “Seriously, Senator?” responded the host, as if by gag reflex. Seriously, assured Rubio, even though he cannot be taken seriously on this point. (Among Rubio’s crack team of advisers are several consultant veterans of recent Republican presidential primary campaigns.)
On Meet the Press, he elaborated, “Obviously, there’s political ramifications to everything we do in Washington, but it’s not the reason to do it. And it certainly isn’t the reason I’m involved in doing this.” Of course not. Then what explained his decision to change his position on immigration reform just a few months after an election? On Univision, Jorge Ramos, asked him this question point blank, in Spanish: “You were supporting a presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, who wanted the self-deportation of millions of immigrants, and now you have changed. What made you change?”
Rubio, in no-politics mode, gave a non-answer. “Well really, my position has always been that here we are not giving amnesty to everyone and this plan doesn’t do that,” he managed in Spanish, before retreating to a restatement of his immigration plans. On Meet the Press, in response to another question, Rubio had given the answer that Ramos was seeking. “If someone thinks that we should basically make life miserable for them so that they self-deport, they should advocate that. That hasn’t gone over well in the past because it doesn’t work,” Rubio said. It doesn’t work politically, he must have meant, because the policy has never before been tried in the way that Romney proposed.
This tension, between his public role and his stated role, is what makes Rubio such a fascinating politician these days. As Michael Grunwald recounted in a TIME cover story a few months back, Rubio inhabits both sides of so many borders: He is the Tea party candidate pushing what conservatives call Amnesty, the guy who can wow talk radio and David Gregory, the self-described policy wonk with a poetic message in two languages, the obvious 2016 Republican Presidential candidate who refuses to admit that this motivates his calculations. Even the White House has been impressed with his agility, as his staff has worked constructively on compromise legislation while the boss poses behind press releases that say liberals need to cave more.
As his Sunday show septuplet showed, Rubio is able to handle it all. Crowley’s “Seriously Senator?” was the closest any of the seven hosts came to laying a hand on him. He easily skated around questions of his past record—his campaign promises to oppose amnesty, his support of gun background checks in Florida that he now opposes nationally. He used the same line over and over again about Jay-Z’s trip to Cuba. “You know, Jay-Z is a guy that wears a Che Guevara T-shirt. And he doesn’t realize Che Guevara was a racist. Che Guevara was a murderer and a killer,” he said, in one incarnation. On Univision, he refused to promise that immigration reform would happen this year, but in the next breadth asked Spanish-speaking viewers to help him make it a success.
“Now you talk about the political calculus, I, quite frankly, have avoided making the political calculus on this issue,” he said in his first answer on Meet the Press, a line he must have prepared because its sounded so politically palatable. “Because, for me—and this may sound, you know, new to people or what have you, in terms of how politics works today—but what we have now isn’t good for anybody. What we have in place today, the status quo, is horrible for America.”
The quote was vintage Rubio: A false modesty that lacked credibility and yet was perfectly tuned to the moment. His denial of ambition is a key to his success. And for the moment, there is no doubt but that he is succeeding.