Following his strong showing in the Iowa caucuses, Sen. Marco Rubio has been elevated to the role as the man who can save the Republican party from its own voters. He’s been building momentum and closing in on front-runner Donald Trump in polls for the New Hampshire primary, which is next Tuesday.
How much of that momentum remains after last night’s GOP candidate debate is anyone’s guess. At the most critical point in his campaign, Rubio gave a debate performance that will go down in the annals of modern politics as an epic disaster. Pundits resorted to words like “self-destructive,” “implodes,” and “viral glitch sensation” to describe it.
Rubio’s imitation of a customer service menu stuck on the same loop came as a result of attacks from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Christie has been gunning for Rubio all week, recognizing that destroying Rubio is his only chance of keeping his campaign alive. (Christie released a devastating web commercial showing Rick Santorum dumbstruck when asked to cite the accomplishments that led him to endorse Rubio.)
Rubio began the debate by using one of his favorite stump lines: “Let’s dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing. Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world.”
Christie in turn attacked Rubio for never being “involved in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable.” Rubio responded by attacking Christie’s fiscal competence, but amazingly began to recite the same line again: “Let’s dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing.”
Christie responded by filleting Rubio before a national audience. “This is what Washington, D.C., does,” Christie said. “The drive-by shot at the beginning with incorrect and incomplete information, and then the memorized 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him. See, Marco, the thing is this: When you’re president of the United States, when you are a governor of a state, the memorized 30-second speech where you talk about how great America is doesn’t solve one problem for one person.”
Despite a reputation as a good debater, Rubio completely lost it. He tried attacking Christie’s response to last month’s big snow storm and when that met with boos, he retreated to a safe haven: “Here’s the bottom line. This notion that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing is just not—”
Christie jumped in. “There it is! There it is. The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody.”
Rubio never recovered. In fact, learning nothing from his humiliation, he returned one more time to his favorite line.
The only positive spin would be that the real Rubio was kidnapped and replaced by a defective android. To be fair, one bad debate may not mean anything more than an off night. Remember Obama’s first debate with Mitt Romney in 2012?
The problem for Rubio is the timing of his debacle. He’s trying to close the deal with the GOP establishment and particularly its donors by positioning himself as the best candidate. He proved last night that his weaknesses are every bit as large as the rest of the field’s.
In fact, there’s every reason to think that Rubio is not quite ready for prime time. His national debut, giving the rebuttal to Obama’s State of the Union speech in 2013, was widely mocked. His main accomplishment in the Senate has been his absence from duty. Rubio’s main vulnerability is that he’s a lightweight, and last night he did everything in his power to prove that’s the case.
Although he’s just a prettier version of Ted Cruz, with the same far right positions and overweening ambition, Rubio has somehow managed to present himself as an electable moderate. Republicans desperate for a candidate who won’t embarrass them in the general election have flocked to him as if he was the only life raft in the sea. What they found out last night was that the raft is leaky. Even if Rubio manages to overcome his failure, it will remain part of his political narrative and a sign that even GOP’s best candidates are none too good.