The big story being reported by the media this morning is that Marco Rubio had an awful debate. Marco Rubio did not have a bad debate. He didn’t say anything offensive, there were no “gaffes,” and he never even appeared flustered. He had a bad ten minutes of what was otherwise a solid performance.
First of all, Rubio gave the best answer of the night on foreign policy, explaining with force and nuance a clear strategy for defeating ISIS. He articulated an intelligent and appealing definition of conservatism’s three pillars – limited government, free enterprise, and strong national defense.
He also gave a good answer on abortion, with a particularly memorable line that he would rather lose an election than be wrong on the issue of life. He was brave to defend all life, even life that results from rape (a crime of the father, not the child). He was pragmatic enough to accept signing a law that limited abortion even if it kept these exceptions. However he also accepted the faulty premise that abortion pits the rights of a pregnant mother against the rights of her unborn child. But, otherwise solid and principled.
Rubio did have a shaky start. It usually takes him about twenty or thirty minutes to settle in and move beyond his talking points. In the past few debates I thought Rubio started off too fast and took a tone that was too angry before he was able to relax and be more natural. But this time, Chris Christie was waiting. He pounced on Rubio early, and kept hitting him hard.
When asked about the question of his limited experience and accomplishments, Rubio smoothly rattled off a list of accomplishments before pivoting to his message, that Obama is a failure because of his ideology, not his inexperience. Christie interjected that Rubio was too inexperienced to be president, as all he had were canned stump-speeches. Rubio responded, most unfortunately, with a canned stump speech.
Now, usually it is smart politics to repeat yourself, to hammer your message home. Think Trump’s “build a wall” and “make America great again.” Your message needs repetition to stick with voters. You also don’t want to be seen as retreating from your points. However, this was the one moment when Rubio desperately needed to speak off the cuff. He needed to appear authentic, not automatic. This was his moment to shine the spotlight on his ideas, his record, and his potential, not rehash Obama’s failures. Instead he repeated, almost word for word, his previous answer. Then he followed with a pretty weak attack on Chris Christie, that the New Jersey governor didn’t want to go back to his home state to deal with the recent snow storm.
Chris Christie may be feeling pleased with himself for drawing blood, but he did himself no favors. If anyone benefits from a Rubio slide, it will be Kasich and Bush in New Hampshire, and possibly Cruz in the long-term. Chris Christie is a bully with baggage who will not be the nominee. His “I’m a tough guy, I don’t care what people think about me” persona is much better-suited to his former job as a prosecutor than it would be to President of the United States.
Still, the ten-minute exchange did hurt Rubio, and that’s unfortunate. Rubio is the brightest young star in the GOP. He has stood up to pressure in a way that Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker have not. Ben Carson would love to be able to deliver a stump speech with Rubio’s ease. His answers may be more impromptu, more “from the heart,” but they are often too stilted to really follow, and he always looks on the verge of falling asleep. Rick Perry would be happy to just remember all three points to his three-point plan. He may have been an effective governor, and he can pull off the “average guy” demeanor, but voters also want a good communicator. This is an asset for Rubio, not a liability.
Rubio might emerge from last night’s debate bruised, but he is not broken. If anything, he will be hurt more by overblown reports that he “lost the debate” than what he actually said or didn’t say. Remember, Cruz also had his worst debate of the campaign before going on to his greatest victory in Iowa. Once again, we will have to wait until the results come in from New Hampshire to know for sure.
Still, I doubt we are about to witness a major resurgence for Kasich, Bush, or Christie. The biggest criticism against Rubio is that he is “too perfect,” not real enough, a GOP version of Barack Obama. But that is far less troubling than Cruz’s personality (and equally inauthentic tone), Jeb’s legacy issues, Kasich’s moderate mushiness, and Christie’s Bridge-gate scandal.
If this were an NBA game, I’d say Rubio turned the ball over early, but then recovered to score a solid 20 points on 10/18 shooting. Unfortunately, politics is not sports. What matters isn’t the score at the end of the debate, but the moments that will survive beyond it, and the impressions they leave. Still, if this is a Rubio “bad night,” then that just goes to show what an All-Star he is. 20 points from Kobe Bryant or Lebron James is a “bad night,” but for other players it would be a career-best. In sports as in politics, it is easy to play the Monday-morning quarterback. It is something else entirely to actually go out and perform.
Maybe GOP voters should remember that, despite his youth and inexperience, Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in 2008. Don’t Republicans want to beat her in 2016?