Marco Rubio’s strategy for New Hampshire and beyond has always been tremendously risky. The “3-2-1” plan, as it has been called, envisioned Rubio finishing third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, and (finally) winning an early state in South Carolina. At its core, it relies on Rubio using his political talents to convince outside observers that he is winning primaries by not actually winning primaries, and he managed to pull that off in Iowa, emerging from his third-place finish in the caucus with the aura of a conquering hero. But the strategy also depends on Rubio’s opponents cratering and clearing the path for him as the consensus “establishment” candidate, and as we saw this weekend, that part of the plan has not fared so well.
Jeb Bush and John Kasich both had strong performances at Saturday’s Republican debate, and Chris Christie made Rubio look like a fool. You’ve probably all seen the video by now, but Christie seized what is supposed to be Rubio’s strength – his smooth delivery of relentlessly on-message sound bites – and beat him over the head with it, transforming the Florida senator into a caricature of a vacant political lightweight. Now, with the New Hampshire primary just a day away, Rubio’s momentum has seems to have stalled out and he’s the target of an intense backlash from his fellow candidates and the media that helped build him up in the first place.
It’s a deeply strange feature of politics that a candidate can be viewed as strong because he stays on message, but then come under withering fire because he never deviates from his message. But that’s where Rubio finds himself now, and all because he just couldn’t help himself and had to say over and over that we must “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.” For me, though, the mindless repetition is less bothersome than the actual substance of the talking point, which is borrowed from the talk-radio fever swamp and casts the sitting president as a an anti-American malefactor.
If you’ve listened to a lot of conservative radio (or watched just a few seconds of Glenn Beck) then you’ve probably come across this theme. Each AM dial screamer has his own variation on the “Barack Obama is deliberately trying to undermine the United States” theory. Some peg it to the “Cloward-Piven strategy,” which maintains that Obama has constructed government programs with the intention that they’ll fail, which will spark societal upheaval and the downfall of American society. Others mindlessly attach Saul Alinsky’s name to everything the president does in order to give him a sheen of danger and radicalism. Dinesh D’Souza, the discredited felon, makes the insane argument that Obama is diminishing the country’s standing in the world out of deference to his father’s anti-colonial worldview. They’re all slightly different routes to the same destination: Obama is deliberately harming the country by targeting and destroying the things that make us uniquely “American.”
It’s a dark, paranoid vision of the Obama presidency that sets up the twice-elected Democrat as a sort of supervillain whose policy achievements are rooted in malevolence. And here comes Marco Rubio, the emerging favorite of the Republican establishment, offering a very lightly sanitized version of this same lunatic message. Here’s what he said at this past weekend’s debate:
RUBIO: We are not facing a president that doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows what he’s doing. That’s why he’s done the things he’s done.
That’s why we have a president that passed Obamacare and the stimulus. All this damage that he’s done to America is deliberate. This is a president that’s trying to redefine this country. That’s why this election is truly a referendum on our identity as a nation, as a people.
My problem with Rubio’s debate performance isn’t that he repeated this over and over – it’s that he says it at all. We’re told that Rubio’s great advantage is his “electability” as he builds up support within the Republican establishment as the strongest of the general election candidates. But the substance of his eloquently styled talking points is often extreme and unjustifiable, whether he’s denying the existence of anti-Muslim discrimination, calling for zero-percent taxes on capital gains, or indulging the paranoia of the Republican base by casting the sitting president as a borderline treasonous usurper who has deliberately poisoned the American identity. That lightly guarded extremism a more damaging indictment of Rubio as a candidate than the fact that he repeats himself a lot.