WASHINGTON — On the afternoon of Sunday, Feb. 23, Marco Rubio sent a short email to his staff: "Let's get floor time tomorrow and let's get two or three blowup exhibits of the most iconic pictures out of Venezuela."
The next day, his aides set about the routine Capitol Hill tasks of scheduling speaking time for their boss on the Senate floor and printing out poster-board photos of the crisis in Venezuela, while Rubio jotted down a few notes on his flight from Miami to Washington National Airport. The expectation on Rubio's staff was that he would give a straightforward foreign policy speech on an issue that mattered deeply to a distinct swath of his constituents — and that the rest of the country was prone to ignore.
But when Rubio arrived at his office around 4:30 p.m., he looked at the TV and saw Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin standing behind a podium, reciting a cheery travelogue of his recent trip to Cuba, where he toured a local block party and marveled at the country's health care system. It was the sort of box-checking speech a politician gives when he wants to justify his "fact-finding" trip to a tropical island in January, and it was unlikely that anyone outside a small handful of C-SPAN obsessives would notice it. Rubio saw a slow-moving target.
Shortly before he was scheduled to appear on the Senate floor, a gaggle of senior staff and foreign policy advisers assembled in his office.
"Why is everyone here?" Rubio asked.
"We're going to talk about the speech," an aide responded.
"No, I know what I want to say."
With that, Rubio made his way into the Senate chamber, stepped up to the podium, and proceeded to deliver a scathing senatorial takedown. Alternating between biting sarcasm and righteous indignation, Rubio spent 14 minutes excoriating his colleague for heaping praise on a country that has aligned itself with corrupt regimes across the globe.
"You want us to reach out and develop friendly relationships with a serial violator of human rights, who supports what's going on in Venezuela and every other atrocity on the planet?" Rubio, a Cuban-American, demanded. "On issue after issue, they are always on the side of the tyrants. Look it up. And this is who we should be opening up to? Why don't they change? Why doesn't the Cuban government change? Why doesn't the Venezuelan government change?"
Largely ignoring his scant notes, Rubio described a world in which failing communist states, from Cuba to Venezuela to North Korea, have linked arms in a corrupt campaign to inflict mayhem on people all over the world — and he called on America to stand firmly against them.
Watching the remarks from their office, Rubio's team was taken aback. "We were a little surprised because we were expecting a speech on Venezuela, but it ended up being much bigger than that," said one aide. They scrambled to post the C-SPAN clip to YouTube and transcribe the remarks.
With the help of a well-placed Drudge link, the speech quickly went viral on the right, drawing upwards of 300,000 YouTube views so far, and becoming a talk radio sensation. Right-wing websites like Breitbart, which spent much of 2013 waging a frenzied campaign of misinformation against Rubio's immigration efforts, showered him with happy headlines. The Blaze urged readers who may have missed the "amazing" speech to "fix that right now." Even Townhall's Conn Carroll, one of Rubio's chief antagonizers during the immigration battle, declared him the "2016 frontrunner" on Twitter this week.
"I have been very critical of Rubio's efforts to pass [the immigration bill]," wrote Carroll. "But 2013 was a long time ago and will feel even more distant when White House hopefuls start debating in 2015."
Alex Conant, Rubio's spokesman, attributed the viral spread of his boss's speech to a widely held concern for human rights abuses in parts of Latin America.
"Even though the media doesn't give it a lot of attention, a lot of Americans do care about the tyranny we see in Cuba and Venezuela," Conant said. "America is a beacon of hope for millions of repressed people around the world and I think people appreciate Sen. Rubio clearly making the case for American leadership."
It also helped that in the days following Rubio's remarks, Russia's invasion of Ukraine unleashed a flood of commentary comparing Vladimir Putin's actions to Soviet-era tactics. Cold War communism is top-of-mind again on the right, and many conservatives are eager to frame political debate about Ukraine as a choice between Rubio's articulate tough talk and the weak-willed hedging and confused-grandpa muttering of President Obama and Harkin, respectively.
Of course, with Republicans still philosophically divided over foreign policy, it's less clear how that message might translate to a concrete agenda in regard to Russia. Rubio's eight-step proposal to punish Putin's regime, for instance, has been welcomed with respect on the right, but not with the same fawning his Cuba speech inspired.
Meanwhile, as Rubio once again enjoys 2016 hype, his senior staff remains clear-eyed about how media narratives can work. One aide said he expected the backlash to the Rubio comeback story to materialize within weeks. Still, his allies contend that the senator's ability to recapture the imagination of the movement with a single impromptu performance illustrates why he's too talented to be written off for good.
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.