A few moments on a New Hampshire debate stage last Saturday will likely go down as an historic moment in American politics. For the previous week there had been a palpable sense that the GOP establishment, desperate to coalesce behind someone to stop Donald Trump, was going to break very quickly towards Marco Rubio. Immediately after Iowa, Rubio began began scooping up endorsements from senators. There were many press reports that key players in Jeb Bush’s financial team were ready to jump—and pull their funds, and their friends, from Jeb’s flailing candidacy to Rubio. No doubt Cruz and of course Trump would continue. But there was a sense that the “party had decided” or was about to—to borrow the name of a well regarded book that describes the process of a party establishment coming to a decision.
Rubio had convinced many that he was eminently electable in a general election. On paper, the Gen-Xer with a Latino immigrant background seemed like the magic bullet designed to instantly boost the GOP out of its stale pale male rut. He seemed more or less conservative, and on foreign policy (to those who bothered to notice) was a full-fledged neocon, whose views seemed a reflection of the right-wing, very pro-Zionist Cuban émigré Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, under whose tutelage Rubio’s career began. Against Clinton or Sanders, he seemed formidable on paper.
In early debates he did well, and generally impressed voters. It might have seemed a bit too slick a package, but it was an attractive package. It was a hurdle to finesse his “Gang of Eight” sponsorship of an unpopular-with-the-GOP-base amnesty bill, but the legislative process is complex enough that the issue could be muddled. And he learned to talk “right” about immigration with impressive fluency, to give the impression he was very serious about controlling the border. An added bonus consisted of slams at some Cuban immigrants (his own ethnic group) for gaming the system by tapping into the state and federal social benefits and diverting them to Cuba. Many would leave a Rubio event saying “This guy is an American who gets it.”
Those most familiar with Rubio may have thought him an appealing politician, but pointed to problems. Some noted that the nicely crafted answers he delivered to various questions were always scripted or that he avoided spontaneous exchanges with the press. Then there was the undeniable fact that he had few legislative accomplishments in the Senate, and, remarkably, his campaign couldn’t even manage to put a positive gloss on the record. He hadn’t really led anything, ever. But snarky descriptions by New York Times columnist Gail Collins (“a computer algorithm designed to cover talking points”) or Chris Christie (“boy in the bubble”) or (at a considerably less influential level) myself (“Chatty Cathy“) were hardly going to stop the GOP rush to anointing Rubio.
Jeb Bush’s mordant ads quoting Rubio endorser Rick Santorum saying that Rubio had “no accomplishments” in the Senate might slow things a bit, but nothing Jeb has done in this election cycle has really succeeded. And if Rubio, buoyed by a surge of positive press and rising in the national polls after Iowa, finished a strong second in New Hampshire, the “party would decide” and not that much would stand in the way of a Rubio presidency. To be precise, Ted Cruz and three others, each pushing, or surpassing, 70 years of age: Trump, Clinton and Sanders, all who have their strengths, but also obvious weaknesses—against a well-funded, very polished, Gen-X candidate.
No one thinks that Chris Christie aided his own chances by attacking Rubio. But there are other things in politics besides winning. Rubio’s super PAC had been slamming Christie on the New Hampshire airwaves since last fall, making mountains out of molehills (Christie’s “support” of a Senate vote to confirm or reject Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor). Plus, they are human. How do you think Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor and two-term governor who can talk administrative nuts and bolts till the cows come home and mesmerize a room with off-the-cuff digressions, feels about getting swamped by someone with no record to speak of, whose every campaign utterance seems to have been written by someone else, focus-grouped, and memorized before delivery?
So Christie was going to try to lower the boom on Saturday night. He has been talking all week about the “boy in the bubble.” No one knew if he would have an opportunity. And everyone also assumed Rubio would be prepared. Yet as Christie put it in a Sunday afternoon town hall, quoting former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, “everyone is prepared until you get a punch in the mouth.”
I don’t think there is any observer of the race who expected Rubio to collapse as quickly as he did. He tried to retort to Christie with jibes at his New Jersey record, but Christie had it covered. Then Rubio reached for his Obama script trying to tap into the contradictory Republican trope: Obama is a lightweight with no accomplishments (the same charge sometimes leveled at Rubio); Obama is the malevolent semi-dictator who knows exactly what he is doing in a scheme to despoil America. He said it not once, but four times. Four. People were shocked. Chris Matthews wondered, during the post-debate interviews, whether Rubio was exhibiting symptoms of some sort of brain damage, and in one of the more hilarious moments of the election cycle, asked brain surgeon Ben Carson for his evaluation. The Twitter storm, indicative of what Rubio will endure so long as he remains the race, was both hysterical and brutal.
It should be acknowledged that Rubio recovered, and gave several coherent answers on different questions later in the nearly three-hour debate, including a moving pro-life argument. His campaign is not over, and he remains what he was, a gifted young politician whose views match up well with the neocons. But no amount of neocon spin can make those debate moments go away. And, to be fair, Bill Kristol and other Weekly Standard writers were forthright in acknowledging how terrible the debate was for Rubio.
It wasn’t simply that the answers were bad. It is that they were bad in a way that emphasizes Rubio’s organic weaknesses, that he lacks the credentials or leadership gravitas and experience that people associate with the presidency. If he is scripted, who writes the scripts? Who would call the shots, and who would be his Cheney? This isn’t the kind of thing that any sort of campaign reset could solve; it is, by its nature, something that would take years of political experience to overcome.
And it almost didn’t happen. Jeb’s lack-of-accomplishment ads and the boy-in-the-bubble talk may have been stalling Rubio’s momentum. But before the debate, there was at least a 50 percent chance that Rubio would have finished in second place in New Hampshire and the GOP establishment rallying towards him, in the form of endorsements and cash, would have accelerated. I would be surprised if that happens now. And if you think that a Rubio presidency would have meant a full neoconservative restoration, a terrible thing for America and the world, you owe a big thank-you to Governor Christie.
Scott McConnell, a founding editor of The American Conservative, reports on the 2016 campaign from New Hampshire. Follow @ScottMcConnell9