Marco Rubio gets his comeuppance: How his Fox News interview on Iraq went disastrously wrong

The Florida senator looked like he needed a long drink of water after flailing to answer Chris Wallace on Fox

Published May 18, 2015 1:00PM (EDT)

  (Fox News)
(Fox News)

The 2016 GOP hopeful most helped by Jeb Bush’s early stumbles, or so the pundit wisdom goes, is Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. The two men share the same home state, both are expected to appeal to Latino voters, and Bush was expected to soak up a lot of the Florida money that might have buoyed Rubio’s presidential hopes. But lately, with Bush looking ever weaker, thanks most recently to his awful answers on Iraq, Rubio was thought to have an argument that he’s a stronger candidate than the nominal front-runner.

Until Sunday, that is. That’s when Rubio joined Bush in the (latest) Iraq war quagmire. There’s got to be some karmic justice in the fact that two leading GOP presidential candidates have humiliated themselves trying to figure out how to handle the war politically. Confronted by Fox’s Chris Wallace about his own seeming flip flop on the question of whether, if he knew then what we know now, he’d have invaded Iraq, Rubio tried to deny he’d given different answers. Then he challenged Wallace for asking the question.

At first Rubio tried to insist it’s unfair to use hindsight to critique President George W. Bush’s decision. “Based on what we know now, I wouldn’t have thought Manny Paquiao was gonna beat…in that fight…” Rubio seemed unable to recall the name of Paquiao’s opponent, victor Floyd Mayweather. Or else he realized it was a mistake to compare a war that killed 4,000 American soldiers to a boxing match. Nah, he probably just forgot the name.

For a while, he held fast to his assertion that it was not a mistake. “It’s not a mistake,” he said repeatedly.  “I still say it was not a mistake because the president was presented with intelligence that said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, it was governed by a man who had committed atrocities in the past with weapons of mass destruction.”

When Wallace pushed him to say whether he’d call it a mistake, even knowing about the faulty intelligence, he still seemed to say no: “The world is a better place because Saddam Hussein is not there…” he began.

Then he seemed say yes: “I don’t think George Bush would have moved forward on the invasion, and he certainly wouldn’t have gotten Congressional approval." Wallace missed the chance to say that George W. Bush did not, in fact, admit the invasion was a mistake once he knew the WMD intelligence was faulty.  “There are things we got wrong in Iraq, but the cause is eternally right,” he wrote in his memoir.

Most criticism of Rubio, as of Bush, has focused on his bone-headed performance on a question both men had to be prepared for. And it’s true, they both looked like nincompoops. But in fact, the problems for the two are deeper than performance. Neither can say clearly that the war was a mistake, because they remain close to the neocons in their worldview, and as I showed Friday, the neocons don’t believe it was a mistake.

Many either knew Saddam didn’t have WMDs or weren’t mainly invading because of it. As a British intelligence official famously said about the Bush administration’s manipulation of evidence: “The intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.".

Fast forward a dozen years, and Rubio’s been trying to challenge Bush for neocon support. Check out his campaign tagline -- "Join Marco's Fight For A New American Century!" – which suggests homage to the Project for a New American Century, peddlers of the Iraq war (Jeb Bush signed their founding document.) Florida’s junior senator was thought to have less chance to win solid neocon support with George W. Bush’s brother in the race.

But Bush’s stumbles might have increased his standing. That’s why he worked so hard not to say it was a mistake, even if he looked like an idiot in front of Chris Wallace.

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2016 Elections Chris Wallace Editor's Picks Fox News Iraq Jeb Bush Sen. Marco Rubio