All things considered, Marco Rubio probably won Wednesday's CNBC Republican debate, mostly because Jeb Bush failed so spectacularly. But that doesn't mean that Republicans are singing his name from the mountaintop. Joe Scarborough spent much of Thursday morning grousing about Rubio's answer to a question about his personal finance. The National Review declared that Rubio was the winner, but in flat language that shows a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Most conservative media was more interested in pushing the tired "liberal media" conspiracy theory than they were in celebrating Rubio's solid, if uninspiring performance.
Rubio is bland and the polls of Republican voters show it. He's been slowly building up his numbers, but he's still lurking under 10 percent in national polls. Republican voters, if they think about this debate at all, will likely focus on the quickly forming myth that the CNBC moderators were out to get the candidates, and not on Rubio's performance. Actual liberal media, such as the New Republic, tends to see Rubio as an empty suit, a bunch of glib mannerisms covering for the fact that he's an incurious person with little interest in actual policy or issues. His unwillingness to show up for votes only reinforces this narrative. Marco Rubio doesn't inspire much passion in anyone, it seems. Conservatives are bored by him, but so are liberals.
This is why he's dangerous.
A lot of pundits are casting around for politicians to compare Rubio to---names like John Edwards (for empty suitness) or Barack Obama (for being young and non-white) come up---but the politician he actually evokes the most is Jeb Bush's brother, George W. Bush. Greg Sargent of the Washington Post doesn't mention W. Bush, but consider his very convincing description of Rubio's strengths as a politician.
"Rubio knows how to feed the angry preoccupations of many GOP base voters while simultaneously coming across as hopeful and optimistic," he writes. "Last night, Rubio, in what appeared to be an appeal to the deep resentment of many of these voters, skillfully converted legitimate questions about his personal financial management into evidence of Democratic and elite media contempt for his relatively humble upbringing, which he proceeded to explain he had overcome through hard work. Rubio’s narrative is both laden with legitimate resentment and inspiring!"
Playing to angry conservatives while simultaneously coming across as a nice, if bland guy to more mainstream crowds? That sounds exactly like the formula that Bush employed against Al Gore in the 2000 campaign. While Rubio avoids the now-loaded term "compassionate conservatism", his pitch, that he supports conservative policies because he thinks they help working class people, hits exactly the same note.
If Rubio wins, there's a strong chance that the 2016 election will be a redux of the 2000 campaign: A dim but affable-seeming Republican who comes across as kind of harmless against a smarty-pants Democrat that the media can't help but portray as high-strung. That combination not only leads to a rather boring campaign, with debates between the nerd and the aw-shucks guy putting everyone to sleep, but it suppresses voter turnout.
Voters need to be fired up to bother showing up at the polls. Sometimes that can be done with a charismatic politician who people can't wait to vote for---think Obama in 2008---but sometimes it can also be done by having someone in the race you hate so much you will crawl over broken glass to vote against him. Rubio is boring, just like Bush in 2000. It's easy to see how Democrats might not hate him enough to make time in their day to vote against him.
Now it's also true that Rubio causes no real excitement on the Republican side, either. But while that can hurt him in the primary, it's no big deal for him in the general election. Republicans have an army of elderly voters that never miss an election, which is why they kill in midterms but don't do as well in presidential election years. Plus, while Republicans may not be fired up about Rubio, they will be fired up about keeping the Democrat out of office---whether it's Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders---which will drive up turnout on their side.
The 2000 election is one that George W. Bush should have lost and it was only because he had certain post-voting-day advantages in his favor that allowed him to massage the results enough to get declared President: The state with disputed votes was run by his brother, the Supreme Court was dominated by Republicans, and angry mobs of conservatives were able to prevent election officials in Florida from completing proper recounts. Those advantages have only grown since then. Most swing states have Republican leadership. The Supreme Court is still dominated by conservatives. Voting irregularities that hurt Democrats are preordained, due to Republican legislation that suppresses votes. And angry conservative mobs are a lot easier to form these days, especially with the internet, than they were in 2000. If it's close, the Republican has all the advantages.
And no one is better equipped to make it close that Marco Rubio, who will put voters to sleep until they wake up to find they forgot to vote for Clinton. Jeb Bush would turn out more Democrats, because his petulance would piss them off. Donald Trump would cause a massive surge in voter turnout as liberals do whatever they can to keep him out of office. (And he might be the one Republican candidate that would turn a few Republican voters off.)
The real question is whether or not Rubio can make it out of the primaries. After Wednesday's debate, it seems more possible than ever. Bush is almost surely out now, Ben Carson's not really running, which means that Donald Trump is his only real threat. And while Trump is still flying high, the possibility that he will wear out his welcome before the primaries still looms large, and he still has a history of Republicans flirting with fringe candidates only to turn around and vote for establishment favorites at the end of the day.
It sounds weird to say it, but Democrats better hope that Trump wins the nomination. Because Marco Rubio really could snooze his way into the White House.