WEST MIAMI, Fla. — It was not supposed to end like this for Marco Rubio.
Eleven months ago, he launched his presidential campaign in front of Miami’s Freedom Tower, the Ellis Island for his and other Cuban families. In his rapid rise, young Rubio had been a darling of both the tea party movement and the conservative intelligentsia — the Republicans’ best hope of attracting nonwhite voters.
But then came vulgar Donald Trump. Rubio was savaged on everything from immigration to his height. On Tuesday night, Rubio, his campaign fading, lost his home state of Florida to the bigoted demagogue who makes scapegoats of foreigners and minorities. Bowing to the inevitable, Rubio ended his candidacy.
By the time Rubio’s campaign bus rolled to its final pre-primary stop — an outdoor basketball court here where he played as a boy — only a couple-hundred supporters were on hand, nearly equaled by the number of journalists on death watch.
When Rubio spoke, the sound system failed, so he delivered his valedictory with a bullhorn.
Rubio’s voice sounded tinny, but his words were rich with nostalgia as he recalled knocking on doors when he ran for city commissioner here. “In between sips of sweet Cuban coffee, I heard the stories of their youth, of the dreams they lost,” he said. “That has carried me every single day throughout this campaign, knowing that my worst days are better than some of the best days that many people in this community have had.”
These are not the best days for Rubio, or for anybody who cares about American democracy. The 44-year-old made mistakes during his campaign: freezing in the New Hampshire debate, failing to take on Trump earlier, then finally attacking Trump by joking about genitalia.
Yet he finished honorably. He spoke reflectively Monday about Trump’s brutal transformation of politics. This message should have been delivered much earlier, but it deserves to be heard even now.
“Leadership is not about going to an angry and frustrated people and saying you should be even angrier and more frustrated, and you should be angry and frustrated at each other,” Rubio told a gym full of Christian college students in West Palm Beach. “That’s called demagoguery. And it’s dangerous.” It leads, he said, to “where we are today, a nation where people literally hate each other because they’re voting for different candidates. … And it leaves us incapable of solving problems.”
Trump tore up the norms of decency that remained in American politics, and Rubio expressed puzzlement that it worked. “My whole life I’ve been told being humble is a virtue, and now being humble is a weakness and being vain and self-absorbed is somehow a virtue,” he said. “My whole life I’ve been told no matter how you feel about someone, you respect everyone because we are all children of the same God — and now being respectful to one another is considered political correctness.”
Rubio voiced regret for his own role in the vulgarity, saying he “felt terrible” about it. Such remorse separates Rubio from Trump, who seems to have no shame as he blurts obscenities, delivers insults and winks at violence. “There are people, I know, who like this stuff because he says what they want to be able to say, [but] presidents can’t say whatever they want to say,” Rubio told the students, mentioning the harm to America’s reputation that Trump has already done. “We’re not a Third World country. We’re the United States of America.”
That’s the welcoming country to which Rubio’s parents immigrated, settling among the shoe-box homes here in Cuban West Miami. “Everywhere I go I tell the story of this community of people, many of whom lost their country in their youth,” Rubio said in his boyhood park, his kids beside him in the bed of his Dodge pickup.
He spoke, in English, then in Spanish, with the requisite optimism, telling supporters he looked forward to moving his “caja china” — Cuban barbecue — to the White House.
But Rubio’s speech to his modest band had the ring of a farewell. “I will always be a son of this community. I will always carry with me the hopes and dreams of generations that made possible the dreams of mine,” he said. His candidacy, he said, “was possible because you and I happen to live in the one place on Earth where even the son of a bartender and a maid from West Miami can be president.”
Or at least he can lose to a trash-talking rich guy from Queens.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank. (c) 2016, Washington Post Writers Group