The critique of Marco Rubio has been that he is a manufactured candidate, competent at reciting a script but too pretty and youthful to handle the heat of a big moment. His behavior when given a chance to deliver the State of the Union rebuttal a few years ago gave that theory a lot of credence.
Well, it happened again at the GOP debate Saturday night. At a critical moment in the campaign, with the party establishment seemingly ready to embrace him as its champion, Rubio foundered. After Gov. Chris Christie accused him of being unable to respond with anything but canned answers given to him by advisers, Rubio lamely responded, again and again, by repeating the same canned answer given to him by advisers. It was as if his brain was stuck on replay.
“There it is! There it is!” Christie pounced, extending his index finger to point out the emperor’s lack of clothing. “The memorized 25-second speech! There it is, everybody.” And there it was.
It was a bad moment for Rubio, and although he later recovered a degree of calm, it’s never a good thing to validate your opponents’ chief criticism in front of a national TV audience. We won’t know until Tuesday night what impact it has had on New Hampshire voters, but it could not have been good. I’m sure Democratic strategists were also taking note of how easily Rubio could be rattled.
However, let’s focus a bit on the content of the anti-Obama soundbite that Rubio kept repeating, because that is even more telling about the nature of his candidacy. Here was one version:
“We have to understand what we’re going through here. We are not facing a president that doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows what he is doing. That’s why he’s done the things he’s done. That’s why we have a president that passed Obamacare and the stimulus. All this damage that he’s done to America is deliberate.”
“All the damage that he’s done to America is deliberate.” Later in the debate, butting into an unrelated discussion about state taxes and job creation between Christie and John Kasich, Rubio went at it yet again:
“I think anyone who believes that Barack Obama isn’t doing what he’s doing on purpose doesn’t understand what we’re dealing with here, OK? This is a president — this is a president who is trying to change this country. When he talked about change, he wasn’t talking about dealing with our problems.¹
“Obamacare was not an accident. The undermining of the Second Amendment is not an accident. The gutting of our military is not an accident. The undermining of America on the global stage is not an accident.”
Let’s set aside the debate about the accomplishments of the Obama administration — some 20 million more Americans with health insurance, a jobless rate of 4.9 percent, wages finally beginning to rise, the deficit cut by more than half, Iran forced to shut down reactors and surrender its stockpile of enriched uranium — and focus on the sheer nastiness of Rubio’s argument: Obama is not only weakening America, he is doing it on purpose.
That kind of argument should never come from the lips of a major presidential candidate. Unnamed trolls on the Internet may make such claims; talk-radio hosts eager to draw attention to themselves may do the same. But Rubio’s argument, with its intimations of disloyalty and treachery, ought to have no place in civil debate among those who aspire to lead all Americans.
But according to Rick Wilson, a Republican consultant and Rubio backer, it is a calculated decision and part of the campaign’s core strategy.
“Four times Rubio reminded you how much you hate that son of a bitch Barack Obama,” Wilson told Politico in defending Rubio’s remarks. “If you are a regular Republican voter, that is a message you are amenable to.”
That may be true, but it doesn’t make it right and it doesn’t make it smart. According to Gallup, President Obama’s job approval rating last week was 48 percent, compared to 49 percent for Ronald Reagan at this point in his presidency and 34 percent for George W. Bush. Another 48 percent disapprove of Obama’s performance.
Certainly, the 48 percent of Americans who approve of Obama’s performance are a poor audience for Rubio’s character attack and insinuations. And I still have enough faith in the American people to believe that even among the 48 percent who disapprove of Obama, a significant portion will shrink from the basic lack of decency, respect and civility inherent in Rubio’s rhetoric. There will still be many who can disagree with Obama politically without “hating that son of a bitch.”
I hope that we’re a better country than Rubio believes us to be.
¹Yes, he was talking explicitly about dealing with our problems. The famous Obama statement to which Rubio refers came five days before the 2008 election, in a speech in Missouri:
“Now, Mizzou, I just have two words for you tonight: five days. Five days. After decades of broken politics in Washington, and eight years of failed policies from George W. Bush, and 21 months of a campaign that’s taken us from the rocky coast of Maine to the sunshine of California, we are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.
“In five days, you can turn the page on policies that put greed and irresponsibility on Wall Street before the hard work and sacrifice of folks on Main Street. In five days, you can choose policies that invest in our middle class, and create new jobs, and grow this economy, so that everyone has a chance to succeed, not just the CEO, but the secretary and janitor, not just the factory owner, but the men and women on the factory floor.”
At the time, we were in the midst of an eight-month stretch in which we lost an average of 675,000 jobs a month. In the six years since February of 2010, we have gained 14 million jobs and have experienced the longest stretch of job growth in the nation’s history.