Most lawmakers approach life in Congress as they would a functional marriage: The decision to go down the road is taken with great care, the thrill of the new is soon supplanted by hard work and sacrifice in pursuit of lasting gratification — and it’s painful whenever things don’t work out, for whatever reason.
Marco Rubio has decided his congressional career is more akin to a nascent relationship, where “love it or leave it” is an appropriate default setting. As the nation will be reminded Wednesday night, when the Republican presidential candidates debate for a third time, Rubio long ago decided to break up with the Senate, less than five years after spending $22 million to win over the people of Florida.
His rivals in both parties are increasingly acting as though they view Rubio’s fickleness as one of his campaign’s biggest weaknesses, especially because it’s now manifested in the Senate’s highest absenteeism rate this year.
He says it’s the disappointment in congressional life that’s motivating him to run for the only job with even more power to make government function better.
Which of those viewpoints carries the day could become clearer soon, because GOP operatives and pundits are focusing on Rubio’s potential to be the best alternative to the outsiders topping the presidential field, Ben Carson and Donald Trump.
Rubio has an obvious model for his short-fuse approach to the political marriage he’s in.
“I know I haven’t spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington,” Barack Obama said in launching his bid for president in 2007, after just 25 months as an Illinois senator. “But I’ve been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change.”
That year, Obama went on to be more of a missing person in the Senate than Rubio is today. The same was true for the eventual 2008 GOP nominee, John McCain of Arizona, although like Obama he was committed to remaining in office for at least two more years if he didn’t win the White House.
Rubio had missed 92 of the year’s 284 roll calls as of Tuesday morning, a 68 percent attendance rate. Obama made only 62 percent of the votes the year before his triumph. That same year, McCain answered the call of the roll just 44 percent of the time.
(The other senator in the hunt back then, Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, participated in 77 percent of the 2007 votes. Four years later, both House Republicans running in 2012, Texan Ron Paul and Minnesota’s Michele Bachmann, attended floor votes about as often as Rubio now.)
“I’m not missing votes because I’m on vacation,” Rubio said Sunday on CNN. “I’m running for president so that the votes they take in the Senate are actually meaningful again.”
Beyond the skipped ballots, Rubio’s vulnerability to criticism is rooted in reasons he’s given for his broken relationship with the Senate. “I don’t know that ‘hate’ is the right word,” Rubio told The Washington Post. “I’m frustrated.”
He’s suggested providing constituent service and participating in briefings is more important to him than saying “yea” or “nay” about proposed changes to federal policy, especially when so many Senate roll calls are “show votes” where his presence would not prove dispositive.
A summary of eight different statements on his disillusionment with the job was issued Tuesday by the Democratic National Committee, which took special glee in noting how a week ago Rubio gave a floor speech in a favor of making it easier to dismiss federal workers for poor performance.
Of the five senators now seeking the White House, Rubio is the youngest at 44 and the only one who’s made a definitive decision to move on whether or not he moves up.
If he doesn’t become president, then Texan Ted Cruz, the only candidate who’s gone even further than Rubio in disparaging the place where he works , would have until 2018 to decide whether to try to stick with what he’s got. (His feuding with GOP leaders aside, he’s made 30 more roll calls this year than Rubio.)
It’s also 2018 when independent Bernard Sanders would have to decide on running again — at 77, and after already spending more than a one-third of his life representing Vermont on the Hill.
He’s campaigning for the Democratic nomination and getting to the floor for 97 percent of the votes. The same is true for Republican Rand Paul, who’s been permitted to run both for president and a second term in Kentucky in 2016.
The senator with the second-worst attendance record this year is Lindsey Graham, who’s skipped a quarter of the votes but hasn’t been able to use the extra time to boost his poll standing above the low single digits. He’s up for re-election in South Carolina in 2020.
Graham has never married, but on MSNBC this week offered some marital-sounding advice to Rubio about getting along with his work spouse: “Patience is a virtue. You do have to be patient,” he said. “The Senate is a wonderful place.”
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