Saturday’s debate showed very clearly that the other “establishment” candidates competing with Rubio in New Hampshire don’t buy into the theory that they should step aside for the good of the party. On the contrary, Christie went out of his way to damage Rubio, and Kasich and Bush were more than happy to benefit from that. None of them accepts that Rubio is the default or obvious choice, and one reason for that seems to be that they’re all in agreement that he isn’t remotely prepared for the presidency when compared with any of them. Following the debate, none of them is thinking about how or when to bow out to clear the way for Rubio. They are all interested only in beating him, and at least one of them is likely to succeed this week.
In Christie’s case, it is mostly a matter of payback. Rubio’s allies put up very effective attack ads targeting him in New Hampshire and stomped out whatever flickering embers of hope his campaign might have had, and now he is returning the favor as best he can. It’s also possible that Christie genuinely doesn’t think Rubio is qualified to be president, and therefore he sees the attempt to “anoint” him as the alternative to Trump and Cruz as a serious mistake. Bush’s determination to take Rubio down also seems to be primarily motivated by anger against Rubio’s perceived betrayal, but his disdain for Rubio’s lack of achievements in the Senate also seems real. If Rubio really were as “manifestly superior” to them as his boosters claim, they might not be able to justify continuing their campaigns just to settle a score, but they don’t accept that he is.
The refusal of the governors to give up and play along with Rubio’s bad campaign strategy shouldn’t be surprising. While many pundits and reporters assume Rubio is a more viable contender for the nomination than they are, the governors naturally believe differently. Despite the fact that the three governors’ overall unfavorability ratings within the party really are terrible (all of them have 2-to-1 negative ratings), they are viewed favorably by the third of the party that is divided up among them. Those are the Republicans that matter for the “establishment” candidates in the short run. Another common assumption is that Rubio is simply a more competent candidate than Kasich or Bush, but as the last debate showed that is not necessarily true.
Once Walker dropped out, Rubio inherited the dubious role of being the “consensus” candidate who supposedly has the ability to unify all factions of the party behind him. This is a role that Rubio has been embracing as part of his broader electability argument. The trouble with being in that position is that there usually isn’t a lot of enthusiasm for such a candidate. The “consensus” candidate is touted as such mainly because he is unobjectionable to most of the party. As a result, he gets stuck trying to please different factions of the party at the same time during the primaries and ends up satisfying only a few. When he gets in trouble, he has relatively few loyal supporters that are genuinely for him rather than just being against everyone else.
Because Rubio is so obviously the favorite of Republicans in Washington and New York, he is perceived to be part of the so-called party “establishment,” but the reluctance of many party leaders and donors to get behind him deprives him of most of the tangible benefits of that association while loading him down with a lot of extra baggage. Being stuck in the “middle lane” that Walker tried and failed to occupy, Rubio tries to combine alarmist rhetoric to compete with the demagogues while hewing to his scripted lines on policy to placate party elites. That produces the absurd robotic anti-Obama talk we heard Saturday.
Instead of making him the party’s unifying leader, this makes him seem unreliable to people on all sides of the party. As James Poulos points out in his review of the debate, it is a lack of trust in Rubio that holds him back:
His lousy performance on Saturday could change the whole race. This isn’t a partisan spin thing. Established Republicans and Democrats, devoted conservatives and liberals, all began lining up behind the story. Why? Because so few people really trust Rubio.
His “establishment” rivals haven’t been in any hurry to exit the race in part because they assume that Rubio wouldn’t be a reliable standard-bearer for the party. His rivals see him as untrustworthy, and so they are understandably unwilling to entrust the fortunes of the party to him. The fact that they are doing this even though it almost certainly ensures a Trump or Cruz nomination shows just how little faith the governors have in the senator.
Last week the Saudis said they would send ground forces to fight in Syria, but only on condition that they would be joining a U.S. invasion force. While the Saudi proposal is a non-starter here in the U.S., they wouldn’t be able to fulfill their end of the bargain anyway:
The Saudis don’t really have an expeditionary army tailored for extended combat in Syria. Even its brutal, faltering campaign to defeat Iran-backed rebels in Yemen has been largely limited to airstrikes. Its Royal Saudi Land Force, with an estimated strength of 175,000 troops, is designed to maintain order inside the kingdom, experts say.
“The Saudi military is indeed heavily committed in Yemen, and its forces are not configured to allow for an intervention on the ground in Syria,” says a former senior U.S. diplomat in Saudi Arabia, who asked for anonymity because he now represents a major industry in the region.
At most, the Saudis are “offering” to participate in a ground war in which U.S. forces would be doing the vast majority of the fighting, and even then they would not be able to contribute very much to the effort. The Saudis are “inviting” the U.S. to put our soldiers at risk to advance their goals in Syria because they can’t do it for themselves and probably wouldn’t even if they could. This should make clear that all of the candidate pledges to orchestrate the creation of a Sunni Arab army to fight ISIS are nonsense. Syria hawks have to pretend that a ground war in Syria wouldn’t be fought primarily by U.S. forces, because once it becomes clear that this is what will be required their preferred policy will be rejected. Considering how unwilling the Saudis have been to commit large numbers of ground forces to their appalling war in Yemen, it was never credible that they would be willing to do more than that in Syria.
Even if the Saudis were able to make a meaningful contribution to such a campaign, it would come at the price of pursuing the overthrow of the Syrian government:
Even if the Saudis did mobilize an interventionist force for Syria, Miller and many other observers point out, the monarchy’s strategy is out of sync with the goals of Washington and its European allies: Its main effort is to bring down the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, which is backed by Riyadh’s arch-rival Iran.
The Saudis are trying to sucker the U.S. into agreeing to fight their war for them, and no Americans should be fooled into thinking that they have any intention of living up to what they promised in their “offer.”
It was awkward. In total, he said the same line four times. He didn’t look like an election winner, to put it mildly. As the debate went on, Rubio regained his footing. He finished strongly with a passionate defence of his opposition to abortion. But by then it was too late. He had had his shocker. He had shown once again what a deeply flawed candidate he is. He may look polished, but he is not accomplished. He isn’t comfortable thinking on his feet.
The exchange with Christie was most damaging for Rubio because it reinforced several criticisms of him at once. He often comes across as excessively scripted, and on Saturday he was so scripted that he seemed incapable of moving away from his rehearsed attack on Obama. He couldn’t drop the line even when repeating it confirmed what Christie was saying about him. The line itself was almost Palinesque in its phrasing (“let’s dispel with this fiction”), and showed a certain desperation that Rubio doesn’t usually display on stage. When Rubio is prepared for an attack, he can usually deflect it easily with a memorized retort as he did against Bush last year, but when he’s caught off guard as he was Saturday he doesn’t know what to do. He also tried to counter-attack and said that Christie had to be “shamed” into returning home during the recent snowstorm, which prompted a loud chorus of boos from the audience. He was hit hard, and then wasn’t able to hit back effectively. Rubio’s critics have long considered him overrated, and on Saturday the debate audience got to see a little of why we think so.
Rubio has been treated so favorably in the media for so long that he isn’t accustomed to being challenged as directly as Christie challenged him, and he doesn’t seem to handle scrutiny and criticism all that well. Furthermore, Rubio retreated to his talking points because he was being challenged on the thinness of his record in the Senate. He had to fall back on his anti-Obama lines because he doesn’t have a significant legislative record that he can cite in his defense. The senator is normally considered one of the best debaters in the field, but Christie showed how easily the senator can be flummoxed and thrown off his game. The “malleable man of maneuver” was completely outmaneuvered, and it wasn’t even that hard. To make matters worse for him, this is the sort of debate error that can be easily replayed and turned into ads by his rivals, and so many voters that weren’t watching the debate will keep seeing it over the coming days and weeks. The ad practically writes itself: “Do you want someone this unprepared and unsteady to face Clinton? Do you want someone like this as president?” The conceit that Rubio is the best candidate for the general election looks a lot less credible than it did before the debate, and there are now many more Republicans that must doubt that Rubio is the answer. Insofar as this performance dissuades supporters of Bush and Kasich from defecting to him, that significantly complicates his already poor campaign strategy.
I don’t know how much of an effect the debate will have on the primary itself. Several candidates are bunched up together between second and fifth place in New Hampshire, and late switches in support and late deciders could end up giving a stronger second-place finish to one of them or leave all of them tied around 13-14%. Rubio seemed to have pulled into second place ahead of the debate, and the general reaction to the debate suggests that the best he can hope for is to hang on to that position and not get passed by Kasich and/or Cruz. Kasich and Bush will probably gain ground in the next couple of days. Christie served his purpose as a wrecking ball, but I’m not sure that it is going to win him many supporters. If I had to guess, I would say that Kasich gets past Rubio at the finish line to take second place, but not by a lot, and Bush and Cruz will be following up closely behind Rubio. Bush and Kasich have even less incentive to drop out after Tuesday than they did last week, and Rubio’s shaky performance can only encourage them to stay in the race for a while. Instead of quickly winnowing the field down to three candidates, New Hampshire seems more likely to give at least two of the other “establishment” candidates new life and to create new doubts about Rubio’s viability.
Daniel DePetris said last week that Paul’s exit from the race would hurt the quality of the foreign policy debate in the primaries:
Now that Rand Paul has dropped out of the presidential primary race, it will become increasingly difficult for Americans watching the debates to distinguish one Republican from another on the stage. Whether or not one happened to agree with Rand Paul’s policy positions on privacy, national security or terrorism, one thing is certain: he was the lone voice in the GOP primary race who was willing to buck the conventional wisdom of the party. With Paul gone, expect to witness a Republican presidential field that is far more monolithic.
The treatment of foreign policy and national security issues on Saturday in the eighth Republican debate showed just how true this is. Whether it was Cruz’s insistence on defending his ignorant carpet bombing rhetoric, Trump’s promise to bring “a lot worse” than waterboarding back into use on detainees, or Bush and Rubio’s silly belief that a Sunni Arab army can be conjured up to fight ISIS in Syria, virtually everything that the candidates said about foreign policy was either irresponsible or delusional or both. There was no one there to challenge Cruz’s latest unfounded fear-mongering about EMPs being detonated over America, nor was there anyone to counter Bush’s reckless willingness to launch a “pre-emptive strike” against a state like North Korea. Rubio wants to put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism purely as a punitive measure, which would reverse the Bush administration’s decision to take them off the list. The candidates seemed to be unanimously in favor of every bad idea mentioned. To the bewilderment of many conservatives, several of the candidates were also fine with the bizarre and unnecessary suggestion to expand Selective Service registration to include women.
None of the candidates gave the slightest sign of valuing prudence or restraint. The closest that anyone came to that was when Trump said, “I’m not the one with the trigger,” but that didn’t stop him from indulging in his usual ridiculous talk of both bombing and taking oil fields. Dan McCarthy commented on this in his review of the debate:
Trump’s answers to the night’s foreign-policy questions should put paid to any talk of him as a realist. His answer to ISIS remains “stop the oil and take the oil—not just bomb it, take it—when you do that, it’s going to dry up very quickly.” Alluding to “medieval times,” he promised not only to reinstate waterboarding but also to “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”
Paul’s absence from the race means that there won’t be anyone to inject even a little bit of sanity into future debates when it comes to foreign policy, and we were reminded on Saturday just how awful the rest of the field has always been.
Is Trump a realist? Leon Hadar considers the evidence and concludes that he isn’t.
End U.S. support for the war in Yemen. Emma Ashford calls on the Obama administration to halt its support for the Saudi-led coalition.
Inconsistent impatience on Cuba. Paul Pillar chides critics of normalization with Cuba for their haste to declare engagement a failure.
Sanders shouldn’t get a free pass on foreign policy. Daniel DePetris explains why it matters that Sanders is neglecting foreign policy in his campaign.
Moldova’s “pro-Western” facade. Natalia Otel Belan and Marc Schleifer explain why it is a mistake for Western governments to dismiss protests against the Moldovan government.
The Democratic debate last night included some discussion of foreign policy, and the two candidates repeated their standard arguments against each other. As he often has before, Sanders keeps bringing up Clinton’s vote to authorize the Iraq war:
But experience is not the only point, judgment is. And once again, back in 2002, when we both looked at the same evidence about the wisdom of the war in Iraq, one of us voted the right way and one of us didn’t.
Sanders tends to use the original Iraq war debate as a crutch when answering any foreign policy question. That reflects the fact that their records on the Iraq war are what most clearly distinguish them, and it also reflects Sanders’ overall lack of interest in the subject. Foreign policy has generally received much less attention in the contest for the Democratic nomination. It isn’t a high priority for most Democratic voters, and both Clinton and Sanders have obliged by saying as little about these issues as they absolutely have to. In Clinton’s case, she has tried to downplay her record of hawkishness in recognition that she is out of step with most Democrats, while Sanders much prefers to focus on the domestic issues that have been his primary concern in Congress.
Clinton leaned heavily last night on the appeal to experience and the support she’s receiving from many former diplomats and national security officials. Clinton wants to present herself as the candidate with the necessary knowledge and preparation to conduct foreign policy, while Sanders is left pointing out how poor Clinton’s judgment has been in the past and how much better his own judgment has been. The foreign policy debate between them follows the larger split in the nomination contest: Clinton professes to be the candidate with the know-how to “get things done” while Sanders argues that he is the one who can be trusted not to compromise or betray Democrats’ values. Just as Obama did in 2007-08, Sanders acknowledges his relative lack of foreign policy experience, and tries to turn it around on Clinton in the same way. The trouble for Sanders is that the Iraq war is not nearly as salient for Democratic voters as it was when Bush was still in office, and it has been long enough since the original debate over the war that Clinton’s bad judgment in supporting the invasion doesn’t generate quite the same resistance to her candidacy.
The differences between the candidates on contemporary issues are frankly much smaller, and there isn’t as much of a sharp contrast on policy that Sanders can use to his advantage. While Clinton and Sanders used to disagree on the TPP and other similar trade deals, Clinton has muddied the waters by feigning opposition to the Pacific trade agreement. Both support the nuclear deal with Iran and normalization with Cuba, and both more or less support administration policy with respect to the war on ISIS. Clinton has argued for even more aggressive measures in Syria, but here the disagreement is over how to intervene in Syria and not whether the U.S. should be fighting there.
The biggest current disagreement between Clinton and Sanders is over eventually pursuing normal relations with Iran. This is to a very large extent a manufactured issue that Clinton has been trying to exploit because she thinks it works to her advantage by making her seem “tougher” and Sanders “weaker” on Iran. At best, they are debating a hypothetical, since neither of them favors normalization with Iran in the near future. One would think it would be unremarkable that Sanders thinks that the U.S. should eventually improve relations with Iran, but Clinton displayed her typical wariness of diplomatic engagement by seeing it as an opening for attack. As Sanders said again last night, he isn’t in favor of immediate or near-term normalization with Iran, but that “we should move forward as quickly as we can.” He then used normalization with Cuba as proof that longstanding enmity and disputes with another state don’t have to rule out restoring diplomatic ties.
Sanders has been faulted recently for not having an established team of foreign policy advisers, and his critics inside the Democratic Party see him as simply not knowing and/or caring enough about foreign policy to be a plausible nominee. These complaints have some merit, but they miss that Clinton remains significantly out of step with most people in her party on these issues and that Sanders is much closer to them. Her instinct to side with her party’s hawks in almost every debate is a serious flaw that has led her to take one bad position after another, and the fact that she seems incapable of learning from those previous mistakes is a major problem. Clinton can speak more fluently about foreign policy details, but it’s not at all obvious that she ever thinks through the consequences of the hawkish policies she reliably supports. Insofar as Sanders is inclined to be more cautious and less eager to entangle the U.S. in foreign conflicts, he is not only more representative of most Democrats’ views, but he is also less likely to make costly errors of commission. Clinton may be able to give a more fleshed-out debate answer, but we also know that she is more likely to get the U.S. involved in unnecessary wars than her rival.
Michael Gerson tries to put a positive spin on Rubio’s spectacular immigration failure:
Rubio’s loss on immigration reform spoke well of his ability to appeal broadly in the general election and govern effectively as president. Cruz’s success in forcing a partial shutdown demonstrated only a talent for self-serving controversy.
It’s more than a little odd to say that a total failure reflects an “ability to appeal broadly in the general election.” Rubio rejected the thing that supposedly makes him broadly appealing, and he abandoned the effort as soon as it became politically dangerous for him. As soon as he encountered significant difficulty, he gave up because he didn’t want to jeopardize his ambition for higher office. No matter what one thinks of the legislation, that doesn’t reflect well on Rubio at all. People on both sides on the immigration debate have understood this for years.
Rubio’s embrace of the Gang of Eight bill was certainly self-serving in that he believed it was his ticket to winning the approval of party elites and donors. Little did he know that he would be the favorite of many of them anyway. His subsequent abandonment of the bill was likewise self-serving in that he preferred to protect himself from the backlash against the bill that he had unwisely chosen to support. No one can honestly confuse this with a profile in political courage or something that inspires broad appeal among voters.
Gerson cuts Rubio slack here because he assumes that the senator will return to his support for bad immigration legislation in the future. He expects that Rubio will once again pretend to be against something during an election campaign and then turn around and push for the very thing he promised to oppose, and Gerson has good reason to expect this. This is also why many Republicans can’t fully trust Rubio. Since he switched sides in the debate once before, it is reasonable to assume that he will do so again. Whichever side of that debate is most advantageous to Rubio’s own ambitions is the one he will take, and that should make people on both sides of the issue wary. Gerson’s right about one thing: Rubio’s handling of the immigration bill does tell us a lot about how he would lead. However, it doesn’t tell us anything good.
Larison’s hope for the establishment’s fall is based not on Trump or Cruz or any outsider, but on the dream that boring establishment candidates will suddenly transform into mavericks, acting against the interests of the Party.
I appreciate the response, and I’ll concede up front that I was overstating Kasich’s desire to stick around if he doesn’t do well on Tuesday. His campaign has always been a New Hampshire-centric one, and anything less than second place for him there probably would be a signal to throw in the towel. However, Kasich has said that his campaign will continue unless he gets “smoked” in New Hampshire, and that implies that he might very well stick around for a while if he has a good result. Bush still has the resources and the incredible sense of entitlement that led him to enter the race in the first place, and he seems more determined to continue than Kasich. Bush said earlier this week, “That message will resonate and I’m in it for the long-haul.” Christie probably will drop out after next week unless he has a completely unexpected revival in the next few days, but otherwise I don’t foresee the mass exodus that Rubio is counting on.
One problem with Berlatsky’s objection is the conceit that the other “establishment” candidates accept that withdrawing from the race to clear the way for Rubio is in the “interests of the party.” Both Bush and Christie have dismissed this idea as absurd or silly. Another is that it overlooks the intense personal resentment Rubio seems to have inspired among some of these candidates. Christie is the most vocal in his disdain for the junior senator from Florida, but it’s an open secret that Bush and his allies are also furious with Rubio. We shouldn’t discount the effect of personal animus and bitterness when thinking about what these candidates may do.
If his “establishment” rivals resent Rubio enough, they may not be thinking about “the interests of the party” or they may believe that they are serving the party’s best interests by opposing someone they don’t think is ready to be president. I have occasionally joked that the determination of Bush and his allies to bring Rubio down sometimes seems Captain Ahab-like, because it seems so destructive to Bush’s own reputation. Even if it’s not that intense, it doesn’t make sense to assume that Bush is simply going to give up so that Rubio has a better shot as a nomination that he and his allies thought was his. I think people that expect Bush to give up easily are also forgetting how petty and vindictive the Bush family can be toward their rivals when they want to be.
The larger point I was making in my post about the woes of the “establishment” is that it has already taken too long to consolidate the “establishment” vote. The four-way split in New Hampshire has done plenty of damage to the chances of any of the “establishment” candidates to win anywhere else. If that split disappeared next Wednesday, it wouldn’t be sufficient to salvage Rubio’s bad campaign strategy. There aren’t enough supporters of these candidates to stop Trump and Cruz before it really is too late in mid-March, and by then it won’t matter that Rubio is the last “establishment” man standing. In short, the people rooting for the “establishment” candidates have a serious problem even if Kasich and Bush give up next week.
Santorum’s stint as a Rubio surrogate got off to a shaky start this morning. When pressed to name Rubio’s top accomplishment in the Senate, he couldn’t come up with one:
The former Pennsylvania senator, who dropped his presidential bid Wednesday, told co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski he was supporting Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign because the Florida senator is someone “who can work together with people.” But Santorum struggled to name one accomplishment Rubio has had in the Senate.
It’s a perfectly legitimate question to ask about a presidential candidate, and Santorum’s protests that the question wasn’t fair just made things look worse than they were. Complaining that Rubio is part of a do-nothing Congress and therefore hasn’t done anything isn’t much of an excuse. That just reminds people that Rubio is both relatively inexperienced and belongs to the most disliked institution in the country.
Santorum couldn’t come up with anything because there aren’t any accomplishments to be named. This isn’t a case where a new surrogate hasn’t been sufficiently briefed on the minutiae of a candidate’s record. There’s simply nothing that Santorum could have cited as an example, because Rubio doesn’t have any significant legislative accomplishments since he entered the Senate five years ago. Even Obama managed to join up with Richard Lugar on a serious piece of nonproliferation legislation during his brief time in the Senate. Rubio can’t point to anything comparable. Neither can his rival Ted Cruz, whose even shorter Senate career has been defined entirely by obstructionist theatrics.
Cruz is running almost entirely as an ideological message candidate, and Rubio is relying heavily on his biography and family history, and they have to do this because they and their supporters can’t identify any successes they’ve had in their current positions. Maybe voters won’t care about this, but insofar as it reinforces Rubio’s reputation for inexperience and failing to do his job it certainly can’t help. It also has to bring to mind the major piece of immigration legislation Rubio tried to push through before abandoning it. If things had gone as planned, Rubio’s biggest accomplishment in the Senate would have been an immigration bill that most Republicans rejected.
Rick Santorum formally “suspended” his campaign last night and endorsed Rubio, saying that he wanted “to find a candidate that really espoused the values” that he believed in:
“He’s a tremendously gifted young man,” he said of the Florida senator. “I just feel a lot of confidence that he is the new generation and someone that can bring this country together.”
The endorsement won’t help Rubio in next week’s New Hampshire primary, since Santorum has extremely high unfavorability numbers in the state and his support there was virtually non-existent. If anything, being linked with Santorum is more likely to cost Rubio support next week. It is nonetheless a notable and revealing choice for Santorum that merits a few comments. I summed it up this way on Twitter last night:
Santorum posed as champion of working-class voters' interests & reducing immigration, so naturally he sides with pro-amnesty donor favorite
— Daniel Larison (@DanielLarison) February 4, 2016
At least since his first presidential campaign, Santorum has been presenting himself as the voice of working-class voters and arguing that the GOP has neglected them too long. In connection with that, he adopted some of the most restrictionist positions on immigration in the 2012 and 2016 fields. He played at being a quasi-populist in opposition to Romney, and in the years following the 2012 election continued to argue against the mentality in the party that celebrated business owners and no one else. By endorsing Rubio, he made it plain that all of that takes a backseat to supporting an aggressive foreign policy.
Though the endorsement doesn’t matter that much in itself, it is representative of Santorum’s priorities and the distorting effect that super-hawkish foreign policy has on the GOP as a whole. Faced with a choice between candidates that have at least some credibility with conservatives on immigration and those that have none, Santorum chose one of the latter. When choosing between candidate that already gets a lot of their support from working-class voters and one that is the clear favorite of the donor class, Santorum chose the latter. It isn’t an accident that Santorum also happened to back the most hawkish candidate still running, since the former senator has repeatedly shown that it is hard-line foreign policy that matters more to him than anything else.
It’s true that Rubio and Santorum are both socially conservative, but Rubio is not the only credible social conservative left in the race. But the thing they have in common that distinguishes Rubio from his main competition is that he is by far the most vocal and aggressive hawk left. If Santorum and Graham had never run, that would have been true from the start. I’m sure Santorum can’t abide Trump for all sorts of reasons, but his main complaint against Cruz is on foreign policy. Ever since Cruz used “neocon” in a pejorative way last year, Santorum has been attacking Cruz and saying that his use of that word proves that he isn’t a “Reagan national security conservative.” In light of that, it was practically guaranteed that he would end up siding with Rubio. Santorum is confident that Rubio is just as ideological and dangerous on foreign policy as he is, and he has every reason to be.