WASHINGTON — Sen. Marco Rubio sure sounded like someone who didn’t think much of the GOP’s tax cuts when he complained recently that "there's no evidence whatsoever" the average worker got a big share of the windfall.
Except, he voted for the bill back in December even after predicting the massive cuts given to corporations would barely trickle to rank-and-file employees.
The stark appraisal from the Florida Republican, laid out in an interview with the Economist magazine, rekindled criticism on social media and from pundits that Rubio is someone who too often comes off as inconsistent — especially after he quickly blamed news outlets for misrepresenting his full position: that “there are a lot of net positives” to the bill including a provision he helped author expanding the child tax credit.
It’s not the first time Rubio has made a forceful argument only to be accused of changing course at the end.
His co-sponsorship of a broad immigration bill in 2013 from which he later distanced himself, his work with President Trump whom he once called a "con man” he couldn’t trust, and his decision last month to support confirmation of NASA Administrator James Bridenstine after voicing deep misgivings are just three examples of what critics call Rubio’s record of trying to have it both ways.
But Susan MacManus, a former political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said the rap Rubio gets is a bit unfair for several reasons: he faces more scrutiny because his passion on social issues stands out in the GOP; his presidential run has made him a national figure whose words are often parsed; and he represents a purple state where issues are not as cut-and-dried as in other parts of the country.
“Rubio is more sensitive than many to the fact that the state and a lot of different parts of the country are very divided and if you have national aspirations, you have to prove that you know both sides of an issue,” she said. “But by doing that, it makes people who are staunchly my-way-or-the-highway people aggravated at him and it opens the door for the other side to say you’re just putting your finger in the wind and that you’re just positioning yourself for your next run for president.”
Rubio is not alone among congressional Republicans facing heat, especially when it comes to navigating a president with whom they've sparred.
GOP senators such as Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, Ted Cruz of Texas and Bob Corker of Tennessee also have had very harsh words for Trump at some point only to make peace and cooperate with him.
Cruz praised the president in a last month piece for Time magazine only two years after Trump disparaged him in the GOP presidential primary as "Lyin' Ted," assailed his wife's looks and suggested that Cruz's father was somehow involved in John F. Kennedy's assassination.
“To see Ted Cruz whose father and wife were demeaned in unspeakable fashion by Donald Trump during the campaign turned around and write this gushing profile of him really says that there’s not a lot of shame anywhere," said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. "Rubio may not be dramatically different from a lot of others but that just means we’ve defined deviancy down to a dangerous level.”
Rubio's national profile, burnished by his presidential run in 2016, has made him a higher target for criticism, said Ornstein. But he also thinks Rubio sticks out in Congress "almost like a sore thumb with the degree to which he tries over and over again to figure out how to look independent without being independent, how to have it both ways."
The senator's strongly worded critique to the Economist that the tax cuts don't do nearly enough to help working families — a point he often made leading up to his vote for the bill — had already done its damage by the time he was able to paint a fuller picture of his sentiments.
Business groups expressed disappointment in Rubio's remarks. And MacManus said a number of Republican activists in Florida she spoke to this week are angry Rubio's comments could undermine the GOP's main pitch during the mid-term elections.
"They're counting on the tax cut issue to be the major message point for Republicans (and) it took less than two seconds (for Democrats) to take advantage of that and create headlines," she said.
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform which fought for the tax cuts, said Rubio's attempts to backpedal mean little.
“He can take it back 300 times and it doesn’t matter,” Norquist told the Washington Post.
It's difficult to measure whether the comments on the tax bill will come back to haunt Rubio — either for criticizing Trump's most heralded legislative accomplishment or for coming across as ambivalent — should he run again for president as many expect he will.
"The question, as always with Mr Rubio, is: how serious is he?" the conservative-leaning Economist wrote in the same story that quoted him about the tax cuts. "He has a record of taking enlightened positions — in backing intelligent climate-change policy, for example, and in his more recent support for immigration reform — then ditching them when the wind changes."
But Alex Conant, a Washington-based political consultant who served as Rubio's communications director, said his former boss gets unfairly skewered for raising issues not many other Republicans are courageous enough to, such as immigration reform and, in this latest case, the idea that the party could have steered more tax relief to working Americans.
“He takes nuanced thoughtful positions that are often not what you would expect from a Republican about the middle class," Conant said. "There is an unfair media narrative that he’s inconsistent when the truth is that policy advocate for those same things when he was (a member of) the Florida House."
Rubio was accused of being inconsistent during the presidential campaign on abortion because he supported legislation that made exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother and other proposals that made no such caveat. His reasoning: any legislation that reduces the number of abortions is worth supporting.
He also had to explain why he ran for re-election to the Senate in 2016 after saying he had no interest in returning to a job whose pace he found frustrating. Rubio said the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando made him re-evaluate his commitment to public service and he also wanted to serve “as a check and balance on the excesses of a president” no matter who won the White House.
Rubio has since struck a productive relationship with Trump, helping shape the president's policies toward Cuba, China and Venezuela where Rubio has been an unwavering champion of human rights issues.
“If I have an opportunity to influence the administration’s policy in a positive direction, I’m going to seek that do that,” Rubio said last year.
"Virtually every Republican has had to wrestle with (Trump)," Conant said. Rubio "continues to speak out when he disagrees with the president, but in order to be effective, he has to have a working relationship with the White House ... He didn’t (return) to the Senate to give speeches. He’s there to pass policy."
Ornstein said it's "disturbing" that Rubio, who positioned himself on the campaign trail as an articulate foil to Trumpism, has not met those expectations as a member of the Senate.
“It’s hard to see a case where he has spoken out and then voted in a fashion that goes against the trust of his party, against what (GOP Senate Leader) Mitch McConnell wants, against what the president who called him little Marco has called for," Ornstein said.
MacManus said Rubio is partly a victim of his own rhetoric: "If you choose to use definitive language, you’re going to have to live with making those choices word-wise."
Whether it will hurt him should he run for higher office is unclear, she said.
"The more this kind of inconsistency comes out in the environment we’re in right now, it certainly doesn’t help his chances," the former political science professor said. "It makes it more difficult for him to create an image that’s different from every other politician that’s changing their minds and making statements in one place that seem inconsistent in another.”