The Unmaking of Marco Rubio

Not the man for the moment?


Did one robotic moment in a single debate really bring down Marco Rubio in New Hampshire, probably finishing him off nationally? Unlikely.

It's difficult to believe that voters would turn on a candidate over one gaffe—yet, somehow, it can also make perfect sense in this cycle. Either way, let's stop pretending 2016 voters are concerned about authenticity. What they're really asking of politicians is for better acting while delivering canned lines. Because they're all canned lines.

Nearly every candidate is a talking-point-spewing automaton. Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz—and even much of what Donald Trump says—is prefabricated, tested and constructed to appeal to whatever subsection of the electorate they hope to entice. The most talented candidates can repeat those lines, jokes and touching anecdotes with the same bogus earnestness every single time. This is their real talent. I mean, even Trump—probably the only top-tier candidate regularly going off script—strings together many of the same absurdities in mind-numbing platitudinous loops, and his fans eat it up.

Still, there's no question that Rubio failed to deliver on this front last week. And while he's no more prone to offer calculated responses than is Clinton or Sanders, Rubio let the political world create a caricature. All the usual suspects joined in, because, whether you like him or not, Democrats fear Rubio more than they do any other Republican.

The robot talking point was regurgitated in dozens of articles, a million tweets and by political cartoonists. Activists, lacking basic self-respect, began following Rubio around in robot outfits. The Washington Post explained what it all meant: "What Marco Rubio's robotic debate performance reveals." Well, it probably reveals that we—pundits, bloggers, media and probably most voters—like to turn candidates into one-dimensional cartoon characters who can be easily mocked, categorized, memed and dispensed.

Caricatures are easier to hate, and also easier to support. Trump the brash fighter. Mitt Romney the out-of-touch job killer. Cruz the Machiavellian meanie. Jeb the awkward establishmentarian. Bernie the pure-hearted ideologue. Rubio the robot. You know how it works.

While this line of attack, brought on by his own performance, almost certainly had something to do with his showing in New Hampshire, I'm not fully sold on the debate theory. Whatever you make of Rubio's positions—and I'm not crazy about plenty of them—he's an impressive politician. According to CNN, voters broke away from Rubio at the end, but exit polls (and you can take them for what they are) show that while the debate mattered to many voters, Rubio fared only slightly worse than most other Republicans.

Rubio's problems are far deeper than some flub. For starters, he seems to believe that if he's perceived as the most electable GOP contender in the general, rank-and-file conservatives will come to him as they have often done in similar situations in the past. Well, 2016 doesn't work that way. This is an election about grievances and anger, not expedient positioning.

Other than his third place "win" in Iowa, Rubio has done nothing to distinguish his candidacy. His middling poll numbers have never suggested a clear path through the crowded moderate/establishment/governors field. In his own weird way, Trump has clogged this "moderate" path. Bush and Chris Christie, theoretically the closest ideologically to Rubio, have worked to sink him. And they probably have. No Republican has ever lost Iowa and New Hampshire and won the nomination.

A bigger problem, as James Poulos pointed out the other day, is that the trust issue is too much to overcome.

Rubio, like Barack Obama before him, has been running for president since the day he joined the Senate. The guy has a lot going for him, but he disastrously misread the mood of the country with the bipartisan reform bill on immigration. In the Obama/tea party era, you can be a principled senator who attempts to get things done (and Rubio was almost certainly a sincere believer in immigration reform), or you can try to be president. You can't do both. For many conservatives, immigration is the most pressing economic, political and cultural issue the nation faces. They can absolve you of wrongdoing if you were a tepid supporter of amnesty; not if you're part of the gang trying to push through the bill. Robot or not.

In his New Hampshire concession speech, Rubio showed some humility, admitted he had a bad debate, and promised that it would never happen again. Then he launched into another prefabricated, message-heavy speech, because that's what good politicians do. They're disciplined. But if Rubio has a chance—and it's a long shot—he'll have to alter the perceptions about his messaging. It's the difference between ending up as Dan Quayle or President George W. Bush. But even if he accomplishes that, it seems unlikely he can overcome his history and the country's mood. Not in 2016.

NEXT: Bernie Sanders' Best Moments Tonight Were on Foreign Policy

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  1. I hope Rubio goes out with a binary solo.

  2. I'm voting for WTF and FYTW. It is the American way. Or via as we like to say in the PCB business.

  3. Gee. Maybe Fox News isn't as influential as they thought, huh?

    1. Fox News is going DOWN!

      And it's past due.

      The worst is O'Reilly when he's TRYING to be funny. He has to be the least funny man on the tube. Even bringing Dennis Miller in to liven things up hasn't helped.

      I think it's retirement time for somebody.

  4. "For starters, he seems to believe that if he's perceived as the most electable GOP contender in the general, rank-and-file conservatives will come to him as they have often done in similar situations in the past."

    You mean like in 2008 and 2012, when they supported electable moderates rather than ideologues for the Republican nomination?

    1. "Electable" they keep using that word. I don't think it means what they think it means.

      Every "electable" compromise candidate loses the election.

      1. C'mon, UCS... Everyone knows that the bloated theocrat Huckabee or the miscarriage-cuddling Santorum would have beaten the snot out of Obama if only the evil atheists hadn't stood in the way of their nomination.

        1. This is true

        2. the miscarriage-cuddling Santorum

          For all the weird and odious things Santorum has said and likely done, I have seen enough families grieving for still-born infants to not hold this one against him. Believe me, a lot of people take it just as hard as losing a baby post-delivery.

    2. McCain didn't fit the mold of electable moderate at all. He was campaigning on staying in Iraq for 100 years, remember. Other than Ron Paul there weren't any ideologues in that primary field, either. Nearly every one of them wanted to simply continue Bush's warfare-welfare policies.

      McCain just got the nomination because they knew they had no chance of winning, and it was his turn. Sort of like with Bob Dole in 1996.

      1. "Nearly every one of them wanted to simply continue Bush's warfare-welfare policies."

        You know who else wanted to / wants to continue (or augment) Bush's warfare-welfare policies?

        1. The Hildabeast?

          1. Komrade Kommissar Sanders?

          2. Hitler?

          3. That's a bingo!

            (Also acceptable: every remaining candidate and most of the ones who have already dropped out.)

  5. Bernie the pure-hearted ideologue.

    I guess an evil heart can be pure evil, but it's nothing to brag about.

  6. I watched a supposedly "damning" video or something of Rubio in that debate and thought he was pretty par for the course. I guess I'm unclear about what is supposed to be so embarrassing.

    1. He drank water that one time, clearly unfit for the grandeur of the presidency.

      1. For me, his track record in the senate makes him unacceptable.

        1. *(Anyone who gladly hobnobs with Chucky Schumer is unfit for elective office)

        2. His voting record is virtually identical to that of Cruz, Lee and Paul.

          Who's record is acceptable?

          1. Rubio was highly likely to beat Hilldabeast and Trotsky's lovechild in the general election, ipso facto, he got torn apart on the blogosphere by people looking for a proggie pushover (e.g. Kasich)

      2. The "Boy in a Bubble" inside of a shark tank.

        His parents should be charged with child abuse.

    2. It is par for the course, if you only use your catchphrases only once or twice per campaign event. Christie himself was one of the biggest repeaters of soundbites in the race, he was just composed enough to remember what he already said. Rubio's only mistake was saying his line three times in one exchange, and then again later in the night once everyone had clearly taken note of the repetition.

  7. Then he launched into another prefabricated, message-heavy speech, because that's what good politicians do. They're disciplined. But if Rubio has a chance?and it's a long shot?he'll have to alter the perceptions about his messaging. It's the difference between ending up as Dan Quayle or President George W. Bush.

    It doesn't help Rubio that he's constantly playing third wheel to Cruz and Trump, the two alphas on the stage, and that he looks and sounds like the kid brother trying to participate in the grownups' debate. Which says something when you consider the timbre of Trumps' political commentary.

    Voters follow perceived strength. Rubio has been a political dolt from the moment he stepped into the limelight with his SOTU response, and you can't afford to make mistakes like that if you want to cultivate the cult of personality that forms the backbone of the Reagan/Obama support. Getting slammed by Christie was the deathblow, but for anyone who was paying attention, Rubio wasn't serious presidential material to begin with.

    At some point you'd think some insider genius would begin combing actors' guilds for the ideal candidate. When you understand that the difference between an actor, a con man, and a big-stage politician is virtually nil in the era of Obama, it becomes far easier to grow your candidate from his early 20s on rather than choosing from the dregs of the professional politicians like Rubio or Sanders.

    1. he looks and sounds like the kid brother trying to participate in the grownups' debate.

      If *only* he had Cruz's nose and Trump's lips!

      1. Speaking of lips, am I the only one who thinks Bernie Sanders looks like he's being censored every time he presses his lips together? He just has a mouth that looks naturally blurry for some reason when it's closed.

        1. You've actually seen Sanders' mouth closed?

    2. It baffles me how Trump has managed to maintain his aura of machismo when he's constantly whining about people being mean to him. As much as I hate to denigrate people I don't know, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that his supporters really are just a bunch of idiots.

      1. We're not idiots. Makes me cringe a little every time Trump opens his mouth. Their is incredible anger outside of the beltway with the Republican party. Personally I would have voted for Rand Paul in the NC primary but since he is out may as well go with a successful American over the remaining political establishment.

        Certainly not voting for the evil socialist or the evil felon on the other side of the ticket.

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  8. Rubio's biggest problem is that he is young and yet acts/thinks like he's very OLD.

    Unrepentant drug warrior... Loves war and wants more of it... Thinks warrant-less domestic surveillance doesn't go anywhere near far enough...

    The guy has the soul of a crotchety old geezer with sciatica who wears socks with sandals and Bermuda shorts and spews vitriol at a Bingo parlor -- but that soul is wrapped up in the body of a nearly millenial young professional type who might have broad appeal if he wasn't such a Huckabee wannabe.

    Go sit on the beach, Marco, and then sip a beer and light up one of those joints you hate so damn much. You need to chill out, bro!

    1. "Livin on spongecake,
      Watching the sun bake.
      Nothing to show
      But this brand new tatoo..."

      Question: what tatoo would Rubio get if he was baked/drunk out of his mind in Margaritaville?

      1. Answer:

        It's real beauty,
        A Mexican cutey
        How it got here, I haven't a clue!

        1. In reality, his tattoo would probably be a speedboat. But one that's still on the trailer rather than on the water because little Marco-Marc is a very practical sort.

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  10. There are two questions driving Republican voters. One is "Will {candidate X} sell out to the establishment?" The other is "Does {candidate X} hate as strongly as I do?"

    Trump fills the bill better than anyone else. He supposedly won't sell out because he's so rich and he radiates sheer hatred for the "establishment" and for non-Americans. "Our leaders are stupid, stupid, stupid", "Mexico is sending us murderers and rapists", "The Chinese are cheaters", "Kill the families of terrorists", etc.

    Rubio looks bad one time and he's finished. Trump gets booed for trying to justify stealing the property of elderly widows and he's untouched.

    Trump claims he can't be bought by the establishment because he's rich and has bought off the establishment in the past. In other words, he's not prostitute, he's a "John" but apparently a John who can't get laid any other way than by paying for it. He's a " businessman" who can't make a buck without buying favors from politicians. His businesses go bankrupt with alarming regularity despite tax abatements, eminent domain and legal restrictions of his competitors.

    However, no one seems willing to make that connection in public.

    1. It's nice to see someone make this connection. I knew I had come to the right place for an intelligent debate. Mr. Trump keeps saying 'I can't be bought.' However, he's a buyer. He IS the donor class. He's just eliminating the middle-man. Why buy politicians when I can just do the job myself (and probably better)?

      In his defense, though; I am thoroughly convinced that Mr. Trump loves America (as opposed to Princess Felony, the Loony Professor, or the Man Who Murdered Baltimore). This is a huge improvement over the current occupant of the White House.

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  13. Rubio is fourth in betting odds right this minute. I could imagine Reason tearing these nearly identical fools down to make room for an LP candidate, and we have at least three candidates way better than the looter party cast. But to change laws THEY have to be lying awake nights worrying about what votes OUR candidates are going to take away. That's when spoiler votes force their more rational factions to blackjack, Mickey Finn, and shove their more mystical and totalitarian factions under the wheels of a speeding bus. Spoiler votes for commies and nazis got us into this mess, and libertarian spoiler votes can damn sure get us out--even faster--provided we keep an eye on the ball.

  14. Whatever you make of Rubio's positions?and I'm not crazy about plenty of them?he's an impressive politician.

    Odd...I've never seen anything particularly impressive about him. Not his voting record, not his speeches, not his personal story. If anything, I found him even *less* impressive of a politician than Romney (who had an impressive record in the private sector but was a mediocre governor at best).

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