Post-debate media mockery may doom Rubio’s campaign

Photo of Rubio in Londonderry, New Hampshire (cc) 2015 by Marc Nozell

Rubio in Londonderry, New Hampshire, last August. Photo (cc) 2015 by Marc Nozell

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

I come today not to bury Marco Rubio, but to take pulse of the media landscape to determine whether the pundits are going to bury him. And the answer is yes. Yes they are.

The establishment choice for the Republican nomination, bolstered by a better-than-expected performance in the Iowa caucuses last Monday, ran into a wrecking ball named Chris Christie at Saturday night’s presidential debate. Judging from the media reaction, Rubio’s status as a serious candidate may effectively be over.

It started even before the debate ended, when the venerable journalist James Fallows of The Atlantic took to Twitter and called Rubio’s meltdown the “most self-destructive debate performance since Quayle ’88 and Stockdale ’92.”

It continued on CNN, where conservative commentator Matt Lewis called Chris Christie’s devastatingly effective takedown of Rubio “a murder-suicide.”

And it carried over to Talking Points Memo, with liberal analyst Josh Marshall opining that Rubio’s “flailing will be a key subject of discussion for the next two days. And that’s a terrible way to close. It’s hard to overcome an echo chamber effect in a febrile news environment over 48 hours.”

In case you missed it (and if you had something better to do on a Saturday night, I salute you), Christie went into full New Jersey bully mode and mocked Rubio’s inexperience, sneering that Rubio was unable to speak in anything other than “a memorized 25-second speech.”

Rubio got flustered, challenged Christie to little effect—and then, incredibly, came back with one of his memorized lines not once, not twice, not thrice, but four times. To wit: “This notion that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing is just not true. He knows exactly what he’s doing.”

The lead debate stories in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and, I’m sure, numerous other papers this morning referred prominently to Rubio’s self-destruction. Worse, the Florida senator became a viral sensation—and not in a good way.

A parody Twitter account, @RubioGlitch, made its debut, with each tweet ending, “He knows exactly what he’s doing.” On both sides of the Atlantic, commentators compared Rubio’s performance to a famous scene from The Stepford Wives. “Like Paula Prentiss, he got stuck in malfunction mode,” wrote my Northeastern colleague Alan Schroeder, a presidential debate historian, at The Huffington Post.Added Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian: “It looked like that sequence from the 1970s thriller The Stepford Wives, when a software glitch reveals that a human-like character is in fact a robot.”

Several commentators have pointed out that the Rubio-Christie exchange came early, and that Rubio regained his composure after that. But ABC inflicted three hours of debate-related TV on us (the actual debate was closer to two and a half hours), and I’ve got to believe that the first hour drew by far the most viewers. Besides, whatever lasting impressions people form will come from after-the-fact media coverage.

The one note of caution I could find was from Nate Silver of Five Thirty Eight, who wrote that, bad as Rubio looked, voters may not agree with the pundits:

Political reporters are in the “fog of war” phase of the campaign where our reactions aren’t necessarily good matches for those of voters at home. Some of the reason we reporters thought Rubio’s answer was so awful is because it confirmed some of our gossip about Rubio, namely that he tends to give pat, repetitive answers. But we tend to be more sensitive about that stuff, because we watch every debate from start to finish, and then we see lots of the candidates’ stump speeches and town halls on top of it. There’s a fine line between a candidate who seems stilted and repetitive and one who seems “on message” instead.

Rubio was by far the biggest story coming out of Saturday’s debate, but there were other stories as well. John Kasich turned in a fine performance, and for once post-debate commentary was swinging his way. He was ebullient during a CNN interview in the spin room. (Of course, he’s always ebullient.)

As conservative as Kasich is, the Republican Party has moved so far to the right that he is regularly dismissed as a RINO (a Republican in Name Only). But Kasich may be perfectly positioned to do well in New Hampshire, as independents who are turned off by Hillary Clinton and wary of Bernie Sanders may choose a Republican ballot instead. It’s hard to see Kasich doing well after New Hampshire, but Tuesday could be a good day for him.

I’ve made it to the 750th word of this piece without mentioning Donald Trump, the frontrunner. I thought he got away unscathed. Yes, I’m appalled at his full-throated endorsement of torture (“I would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”), and I’m even more appalled that no one seemed to care. But the other candidates, other than Jeb Bush, didn’t challenge him all that much.

And when Bush went after Trump on eminent domain, Bush won on substance but Trump won on style, attacking the “donors and special interests” he claimed had packed the debate hall and were booing him. “The move was classic pro-wrestling—like Vince McMahon baiting the crowd,” said Jonathan Last of The Weekly Standard. “And it was so crazy that it kind of worked.”

As for Ted Cruz, he may have won Iowa, but it seems unlikely that he’ll do as well with New Hampshire voters, who have not been kind to evangelical candidates in the past. In response to the dirty tricks his campaign engaged in to sway Ben Carson’s supporters in Iowa, Cruz has settled on a characteristically cynical tactic: apologize for his campaign’s claims that Carson was dropping out of the race while claiming that they really believed it to be true. Cruz had to misrepresent CNN’s reporting in order to pull it off, but whatever.

The downfall of Marco Rubio is what we’ll be talking about this week. A candidate can survive many things, but mockery is not one of them. The next few days are going to be telling, but I really think it may be over for him. Which means that what’s left of the Republican establishment is going to have to come up with another alternative lest it get stuck with Trump or Cruz.

I recently predicted that Bush would win the nomination based on nothing other than the process of elimination. On Saturday, Rubio may have gotten himself eliminated.