If anyone wants to know why front runners duck debate, just ask Marco Rubio. He may not have been leading the pack yet but he was cruising at 80 miles per hour in the establishment lane, got sideswiped by a Mack truck and drove right into the ditch on Saturday night. Depending on what happens Tuesday, we may find out that he actually fell over a cliff and exploded in a ball of fire. His debate performance was one for the history books:
Repeating those talking points verbatim as if he was having some kind of brain freeze was striking. I actually wondered if I'd accidentally hit rewind. Each time he said it was equally unresponsive to the moment and was delivered in exactly the same cadence and even repeating the same wrong word:
Let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing.
Bizarre is the only word to properly describe it.
It's fair to wonder what was going on with him. That was a very odd thing to do. Did he actually think inanely repeating his soundbites when getting hammered for inanely repeating soundbites was a good tactic? His appearance on "This Week" yesterday indicates that is what his campaign decided to go with. He essentially repeated the same talking points again, with only slightly different wording.
It may be that Rubio has some issues when he's under stress. There have been articles written about his odd behavior with his drinking water, which was the original Rubio gaffe back when he did the televised rebuttal to the State of the Union and weirdly reached for his water bottle in the middle of it. This article in Politico examined the problem:
“Marco does have a water thing,” said one longtime Rubio associate who has been affiliated with his past campaigns. “I don’t know what it is. He says he just gets thirsty, but it’s clear it’s just a nervous tic. It’s something he just has to have around, like a security blanket or something.”
When Rubio addressed CPAC in 2012, event staffers failed to stock the podium with fresh water for his speech. At an early applause line, Rubio — who had been visibly struggling with dry mouth and licking the inside of his mouth and his lips, as he often does during speeches — reached down for his water with his right hand, and coming up empty bent his knees and peered under the podium but did not find what he was looking for.
“I remember standing backstage and cursing out loud because there was nothing we could do,” said a person staffing the event. “It caused him some awkward pauses throughout the speech.” Halting his speech again for another applause line several minutes later, Rubio brought his empty right hand up to his nose, lowered it, brought it up again to his lips and rubbed them.
A nervous tic. That might be what happened in the debate as well. He was aggressively confronted by Chris Christie who went right up in his face and Rubio's stump speech became a sort of nervous tic that he momentarily could not control. It's doubtful this means anything important about him except that he's not ready for the presidency which is, to say the least, a nerve wracking job.
Rubio unexpectedly came close to knocking of Trump for second place in Iowa and was on the rise in New Hampshire. Establishment endorsers were coming out of he woodwork assuming they'd finally found their standard bearer. But his performance on Saturday night is now infamous and not in a good way. Mistakes like that are lethal. Think of James Stockdale saying, “Who am I? Why am I here?” Or Dan Quayle being zinged by Lloyd Bentsen for comparing himself to JFK. This may be worse than those. We'll soon find out.
Meanwhile, the rest of the debate was notable for its return to enthusiastic bloodlust and torture. The real GOP frontrunner, Donald Trump, went for it. When asked about waterboarding he eagerly endorsed it, and more:
MUIR: ... Mr. Trump, you said not only does it work, but that you'd bring it back.
TRUMP: Well, I'll tell you what. In the Middle East, we have people chopping the heads off Christians, we have people chopping the heads off many other people. We have things that we have never seen before -- as a group, we have never seen before, what's happening right now.
The medieval times -- I mean, we studied medieval times -- not since medieval times have people seen what's going on. I would bring back waterboarding and I'd bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.
This was greeted with ecstatic applause from the audience.
When asked about it further the next morning he was more explicit:
STEPHANOPOULOS: The issue of waterboarding front and center last night as (INAUDIBLE). You said, I would bring back waterboarding and I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.
What did you have in mind?
TRUMP: Well, George, you're not talking about what I said before that. I said we're living in a world where, in the Middle East, they're cutting people's heads off. They're chopping a Christian's head off. And many of them, we talk about Foley, James Foley, and you know, what a wonderful young man. Boom, they're chopping heads.
So then I went into this. I said, yes, I would bring back waterboarding. And I would make it a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.
What did you have in mind?
TRUMP: I had in mind going worse than waterboarding. It's enough. We have right now a country that's under siege. It's under siege from a people, from -- we're like living in medieval times. If I have it to do and if it's up to me, I would absolutely bring back waterboarding. And if it's going to be tougher than waterboarding, I would bring that back, too.
STEPHANOPOULOS: As president, you would authorize torture?
TRUMP: I would absolutely authorize something beyond waterboarding. And believe me, it will be effective. If we need information, George, you have our enemy cutting heads off of Christians and plenty of others, by the hundreds, by the thousands.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Do we win by being more like them?
TRUMP: Yes. I'm sorry. You have to do it that way. And I'm not sure everybody agrees with me. I guess a lot of people don't. We are living in a time that's as evil as any time that there has ever been. You know, when I was a young man, I studied Medieval times. That's what they did, they chopped off heads. That's what we have...
STEPHANOPOULOS: So we're going to chop off heads...
TRUMP: We're going to do things beyond waterboarding perhaps, if that happens to come.
"That's what they did, they chopped off heads. That's what we have ... [to do]
The Republican front runner for president of the United States appears to be endorsing chopping off people's heads.
When asked what he would do about the fact that it's illegal, he says you'd "have to have it reclassified, you reclassify and you'll see what happens." No, I don't know what he's talking about either unless he thinks you can just do things in secret when it's illegal if you're president. Which is very likely what he believes. He wouldn't be the first.
Sadly, the others who were asked about this were not much better. They didn't suggest we should bring back the guillotine (although Trump was talking medieval times so I'm guessing he would not want to use that method which was invented to make the practice of beheading more humane.)
Ted Cruz was asked if waterboarding is torture and he says it isn't. He did say he would only use it sparingly, so that's nice. As for it being illegal, he says the president has the authority under the constitution. (Interestingly, he later railed about President Obama's tyrannical abuse of presidential authority by instituting education regulations. Everyone has their limits.)
Poor old Jeb Bush had to try to finesse the question, since it was his brother who put torture back on the menu. He defended its past use and then reluctantly said he would not use it now because it's against the law. This is considered the dove position in the Republican party in 2016.
As usual, Marco Rubio rattled off his standard talking points about filling up Guantanamo:
RUBIO: Well, when people talk about interrogating terrorists, they're acting like this is some sort of law enforcement function. Law enforcement is about gathering evidence to take someone to trial, and convict them. Anti-terrorism is about finding out information to prevent a future attack so the same tactics do not apply.
And, it is true, we should not be discussing in a wide spread way the exact tactics that we're going to use because that allows terrorist to know to practice how to evade us.
But, here's the bigger problem with all this, we're not interrogating anybody right now. Guantanamo's being emptied by this president. We should be putting people into Guantanamo, not emptying it out, and we shouldn't be releasing these killers who are rejoining the battlefield against the United States.
He left out the part in the last debate where he said "if we capture any of these ISIS killers alive, they are going to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and we're going to find out everything they know, because when I'm president, unlike Barack Obama, we will keep this country safe." It's not an explicit declaration of support for torture but the implication is pretty clear.
In fact, Rubio has been one of the most hardcore hawks in the race which may be why his debate performance is such a blow to his hopes. Some people may want a psychopath like Trump in the oval office. Indeed, it's clear that a large chunk of the Republican coalition is positively giddy for it. But Rubio has been chasing the rest of the coalition and a young looking fellow appearing to be subject to attacks of nerves in public is not very reassuring in a campaign is based around his alleged foreign policy skills.
The fact is that these Republican candidates differ very little when in comes to policy. The race up until now has been all about affect: who sounds tough, who is the one who will most dramatically roar into the White House and up-end the status quo. Rubio made a move for the people who value "electability" with his Iowa third place but he badly damaged it in the last week-end. Jeb Bush doesn't act like he could upend a bowl of kumquats. The CW has Christie possibly moving up since he was the one who put Rubio on the spot and John Kasich is now the great establishment hope with his "sunny optimistic" strategy. Ted Cruz is still Ted Cruz, grinding out votes despite that virtually nobody has a good word to say about him.
But for all their personality differences, there is very little daylight between any of them, insider or outsider, on policy. If there's one thing we've seen from all these debates in this cycle it's that the GOP is now officially a party of the far right. From taxes to guns to health care to torture to policing to the environment, the only thing that differentiates them is the level of vitriol with which they make their proposals. At one end you have mild mannered Ben Carson decrying "politically correct wars," in the middle you have robotic Marco Rubio wanting to fill up Guantanamo at the other end you have bombastic Donald Trump endorsing beheading.
For all the handwringing and rending of garments among all the varying factions, there really isn't an argument among them over philosophy or agenda. Their argument is with the rest of country. And when we reach the fall campaign it's going to be an epic row.