It should have come as no surprise, and yet, when Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., declared Thursday that he was not interested in the vice presidency, would not run for re-election and would not run for governor in 2018, it was unsettling.
Here is someone who has been in the center of the presidential race, who has been touted as a gifted orator and who was seen for a time as the leader on foreign policy for a new generation of young Republicans. And he's leaving public life entirely? If, as he said, we are facing so many serious challenges, one would think he would remain a figure in national politics.
Well, to be clear, he has the rest of his term to finish out, and he did not say he would never run for office. He did not say he would not accept an appointed position in a GOP administration. And he did not say he would refrain from speaking out. Unlike Mitt Romney, however, he will not have the stature of a former presidential nominee. He certainly seems to be receding at a time when optimism, idealism and policy ideas desperately need strong voices.
A few points are worth keeping in mind.
First, however his admirers might dislike the result, voters registered their verdict on his presidential run. It must sting, for such a rebuke, however one rationalizes it, comes as the first public failure, a spectacular one for him. It might be wise for him to take a breather. (As the saying goes, how will we miss him if he never goes away?) His favorable ratings remained high throughout the race; the voters simply did not want him as the nominee this time around.
Second, no politician is indispensable. The 2014 freshman GOP Senate class is exceptionally strong, and there remain young and vibrant leaders who will continue to mature and gain in influence. (Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Tom Cotton of Arkansas are just two.) And the many governors, some of whom ran in 2016 and some who did not (e.g., Indiana Gov. Mike Pence) will remain in public office.
Third, Republicans, of all people, should know that civic life and life beyond Washington, D.C., is as vital as anything that goes on inside the Beltway. Continuing to pursue passions in education reform, fighting poverty and human rights do not require that one hold public office. And if the discourse in the conservative movement has become harsh, angry and a-factual, conservatives can certainly use a sunny, conciliatory policy wonk, whether in media, a think tank or the speaking circuit.
The challenge for Rubio is to pursue whatever financial goals he has while staying relevant in the public sphere. The party (which might be a successor to the present GOP) needs him, as does the conservative movement and the country.
His political horizon now has to extend beyond the next election. Look at is this way: He could run for president in 20 years and be younger than Hillary Clinton is now. In the meantime, there is plenty for him to do.