As a pro-life activist and filmmaker, what motivates me most is concern for the dignity of the human person, and protecting the vulnerable from violence. That struggle is nothing new, though it takes on different forms at different times.
In the past, when abortion was banned, slavery was legal, and domestic abuse was routine, not punished by law. We will prevail against the gravest threats to life and liberty today, if we are true to our principles.
And it was my principles that stopped me from taking the easy path in 2016 and backing fellow Catholic Marco Rubio. Here was a good-looking, optimistic candidate who shared many of my values, who somehow managed both to connect with ordinary voters and draw support from billionaire donors. Some called him “the next Ronald Reagan,” or at least “the Republican Barack Obama.” I came under immense pressure from past and potential donors, from friends and colleagues, from academics and activists, to set aside my doubts and jump on the Rubio train. Why couldn’t I just get on board?
At first it was just a gut feeling that Rubio isn’t quite to be trusted, that he lacks a moral center and the courage of his convictions. Such a gut sense is what motivates most voters, as it turns out, and they have rejected candidate Rubio in every state but one—and seem likely to shove him aside on his home turf of Florida. But long before I carefully examined Rubio’s record, he seemed to me a lot like… Mitt Romney: the kind of person who wants above all to be liked, who will say and do whatever it takes to make the person who is speaking to him at the moment respond to him positively. To paraphrase Jeb Bush: “Please smile.” Even Rubio’s own smile, which some consider winning, always struck me as deeply needy, almost desperate.
Then when I studied Rubio’s positions on key issues close to my heart, that affect the well-being and freedom of vulnerable human beings, I was even more deeply troubled. Yes, Rubio is pro-life, and laudably consistent. But that did not set him apart from most of the GOP field. On other subjects, however, Rubio’s stances are much less admirable. I’ll just give two, since each for me is a deal-killer: protection for persecuted minorities abroad, and a just resolution of America’s immigration crisis at home.
On foreign policy, Rubio has followed the path of absolute least resistance, plugging himself in to the pre-existing network of tough-talking would-be “nation-builders” put together by George W. Bush. What Rubio fished out of this stagnant pond are the same talking points, the same reflexive answers we have been hearing since 2001—no matter the question. America must be strong, it must confront Russia, it must be ready to intervene and help to transform one country after another in our own image.
As I wrote in the wake of a GOP debate, Rubio followed the herd of establishment GOP candidates in saying that the U.S. should go way beyond fighting ISIS—that we should send our pilots to confront Russian airplanes and threaten to shoot them down. For what purpose? To topple the dictatorship of Bashir Assad in Syria, and make room for the Islamist militias that are fighting to take the country—militias allied with Al Qaeda and funded by the bigoted regimes in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, where few Christians dare to live. None of these powerful militias are committed to religious tolerance. Few Christians are left alive in the areas they control.
I have worked extensively with Christian refugees from Iraq, clergy and laity, and followed closely the statements of Syria’s Christian leaders. All of them regard a U.S. intervention on behalf of Islamist rebels a looming catastrophe for that country’s more than one million Christians. I have spent months conveying these concerns to highly-placed people in the Rubio campaign. I have literally begged these people to get Sen. Rubio to meet with Christian survivors of Islamist ethnic cleansing, and reconsider his policies on the region. Thereas was no real response.
On immigration, I have publicly favored for years a policy that Sen. Rubio just recently got behind: Secure the border first, put an end to human trafficking and take back control of our country’s entry points from the cartels and coyotes. Then and only then, when the American people see that American sovereignty is safe and order has been restored, we must resolve the tragic situation of 11 million people who are currently exploited in a lawless shadow economy. They are among the vulnerable whom I feel called to defend. So are American low-skill workers, whose wages have been flat for the past 40 years.
But Marco Rubio may be the worst possible spokesman on this issue. He has been all over the map on immigration, sailing wherever the politically expedient wind seemed to blow—as Phyllis Schlafly documented in a devastating memo. He ran for Senate opposing amnesty. Then he flipped on the issue. By signing on with the Democrats’ “Gang of 8” bill, he backed a policy that would have offered amnesty first, and vastly increased low-skill legal immigration, with a vague promise that the border would also be secured. The public understandably rejected such a proposal, and the rancor surrounding it has poisoned the wells for a fair and humane compromise on immigration.
So on these crucial issues—how America values religious liberty, how it uses its military power, whether it imposes order on its international borders, and how to craft a compromise that will bring exploited immigrants in out of the shadows—Marco Rubio has shown that he is not a leader. He is guided by no firm core of non-negotiable values that should encourage voters to trust him. Perhaps that is why they come to see him as an empty suit, with a shallow, desperate smile.
Jason Jones is a filmmaker and co-author of The Race to Save Our Century.