It’s no secret that I love Marco Rubio’s chances at the nomination and have for some time. For that reason, I was squirming in my seat last night during the eighth presidential debate. The big takeaway from the night is that Chris Christie did the entire field a favor, although he’s probably too far back to take advantage of his brilliant attack.
I didn’t see a way his rivals catch Rubio unless he himself failed to unite the establishment and mainstream Republican voters, with their considerable money and support, by March. It’s a development which I saw as almost inevitable. He’s too perfect: he’s undeniably conservative (unlike Trump, Kasich, Christie, and Bush), from a swing stage (unlike Trump and Christie), and an extremely viable general election candidate (unlike Trump, Bush, and Cruz).
But he does have one glaring weakness, and it showed last night: the “Obama II” argument.
Republicans like executives. They like managers. They like CEOs. They like doers, not talkers. As evidence, here are the elected Republican presidents of the last 85 years and what their previous jobs were:
- George W. Bush (2001-2009): Governor of Texas
- George H.W. Bush (1989-1993): two-term Vice-President, CIA Director
- Ronald Reagan (1981-1989): Governor of California
- Richard Nixon (1969-1974): two-term Vice-President*
- Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961): Supreme Commander Allied Forces**
*No, I did not forget about Gerald Ford. He wasn’t elected.
**Before Eisenhower, you have to go all the way back to the wildly successful Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) for the last Republican president.
In fact, dating back to 1940, Republicans have only even nominated three candidates that didn’t have executive experience: McCain in ’08, Dole in ’96, and Goldwater in ’64. All tallied, in the last 18 elections, they’ve nominated 15 candidates who were either presidents, vice-presidents, governors, or the most successful and beloved military leader in the world.
Republicans don’t care as much for lawmakers, those parts of a whole with less responsibility. Moreover, if you remember the 2008 election, they particularly didn’t like inexperienced lawmakers — namely Barack Obama, the first term U.S. Senator from Illinois.
Now, eight years later, they’re probably going to nominate their own first-term senator. Hypocrisy would be a fair accusation, and it’ll be an equally applicable charge against the Democrats when, in a Clinton-Rubio election, they point to Clinton’s experience as a reason to pick her over the 44-year-old Rubio. (We’re already seeing the Clinton campaign use it against a 74-year-old man whose been in Congress for a quarter-century.) Eight years ago, no Democrat wanted to talk about experience when Obama went up against John McCain. In either case, you’ll hear partisans swear there is a “right kind of experience,” and their candidate just so happens to have it. When the GOP rallies around Rubio, they’d make it work.
At least, they were about to rally around him. Then last night happened. Then Chris Christie happened.
To be clear, this wasn’t a new attack. Christie’s been launching missiles at the senators for months, including in debates, and now he’s almost exclusively targeting Rubio. His “boy in the bubble” and “25-second stump speeches” were themes of the week for which Rubio should have been prepared, but he did himself no favors last night when his rebuttals were to say the same thing four times, often when it was totally off topic. It was like he a broken robot, and it fit perfectly into Christie’s narrative. Rubio seemed totally stunned. He perspired. He looked awkward. And his reaction to get himself out of it? More canned lined. A total reflex as smoke poured out of his battery pack. Christie was then able to pounce on it with his devastating, “There it is.”
This has been a criticism of Rubio for quite some time — everything he says or does seems rehearsed and refined. To his credit, it’s made him pretty successful at the debates; many campaign managers would kill for a candidate who takes no risks and stays on message. It only works against you if it seems you can’t think on your feet. Christie has been Rubio’s antithesis during this campaign; there have been few prepared speeches, lots of town halls, and comfortable, almost improvisational debate performances.
Christie hasn’t been the only one to knock Rubio on this; he was just particularly effective last night. Christie and Bush have joined forces in their quest to keep Rubio from taking off too quickly. Yesterday afternoon Bush tweeted a graphic of all his accomplishments side by side with Rubio’s lone attempt at one. The Kasich Super-PAC has joined the fray. Each of them are desperate to place over Rubio in New Hampshire, and they’re banking on his untested inexperience and mere position as a member of the unpopular Senate as being Rubio’s weak point. Republican talkshow host Joe Scarborough made headlines this week in his skewering of Rubio’s record, including pressing new Rubio surrogate Rick Santorum to name one Rubio accomplishment, which took Santorum far too long to do.
Unfortunately for Christie, he’s probably too far back in the polls to convert this into a top three New Hampshire finish. All he did was shed new light on what’s been a Rubio criticism for a while. I think the reaction of many New Hampshire voters was probably, “Boy, Christie made a great point and Rubio looks really bad… I think I’ll vote for Kasich/Bush.”
Will all this bring down Rubio? A bit. It may have cost him that top two finish in New Hampshire like his 3-2-1 plan hoped. That extends the competitive part of the primary and increases our chances for the beloved convention. It also, I must admit, increase Trump’s chances at the nomination, since maybe Rubio doesn’t right the ship. In the long run, though, I think the party still determines he’s the candidate that best blends conservative values with November electability.
So I don’t expect Rubio to totally collapse, but we can count on the Democrats playing some of these tapes this fall. Way to go, team.
But fall is a long ways away. Two days until the New Hampshire Primary!