You may have seen this quite sad but also quite revealing article in The Washington Post about the collapse of the Rubio campaign. It’s fascinating piece. But the central element of the story is that what Byron York aptly called Rubio’s post-South Carolina “personality transplant” (I prefer to think of it as a firmware upgrade) was the turning point of his campaign and what really did him in. The additional critical element, according to the WaPo piece, is that big GOP donors were aghast when they saw Rubio go on his multi-day tear of sophomoric insults against Donald Trump.
But I don’t buy that for a second.
To be clear, I’m not questioning the reporting. I fully believe that this is what the donors said – now. Or more specifically, what they said after Rubio got clobbered in subsequent contests. I don’t buy that that is how they thought at the time. And mainly that’s because I’ve talked to a lot of big donors on both sides of the aisle over the years and from my experience their views map almost entirely to the conventional wisdom of the moment among the commentariat and ideological pundits. That’s not a criticism exactly. But they don’t have access to any special information that’s relevant for making this sort of determination. And they’re certainly no shrewder about judging political questions than your average political junkie. In other words, they’re just like you and me. They just have a shitload of money to play with. And the great majority of Republican partisans and pundits thought Rubio’s trash talk upgrade was awesome – until Rubio got clobbered in the next set of races.
My own take then and now was that Rubio had just come off a near fatal blow in his exchange with Chris Christie which crystallized a belief that Rubio was little more than a prefab, made to order candidate who just delivered rehearsed lines. As the snark line went, he seemed like a robot who would and could do whatever his handlers instructed him to do. Given that backdrop, transforming into a different person – getting a “personality transplant” – was never going to be an easy sell.
But go back to the time. If we simply go back to the time in question, Republicans were aghast that Donald Trump was cruising toward the nomination. They close to demanded that someone step up and take him on. The debate was a mess. But the very strong conventional wisdom coming out of it was that Rubio opened up a series of strong lines of attack which might start to damage Trump. The only question or concern was whether the attacks had simply come too late.
As I’ve said a number of times over the years, one of the first rules of punditry is that every losing campaign is run by morons. It’s not just that people can’t help projecting the reality of defeat on to the competence of the people running a campaign – a cardinal mistake. It’s that defeat itself makes you do some stuff that makes you seem stupider. When you’re losing, you really need to try something different. Unless you are deeply confident that your strategy is the right one and that it will eventually work. But there was probably a reason you didn’t try that other thing in the first place. And you’re already losing. So even if it’s a great idea it probably won’t work now. As you shift from one gambit to another, this creates an almost inevitable ‘campaign in chaos’, ‘campaign floundering’, ‘doubts raised’ storyline that makes the people running a campaign look even more hapless, inconstant and inept.
Show me the losing campaign which on the night of defeat had pundits saying something like, “They lost bad, but man, brilliantly run campaign!”
The big GOP stakeholders, including the big donors, were insisting that someone had to go after Trump. Rubio did. Now that it flopped they’re trashing him for doing it, even though they mainly thought it was awesome when he was doing it. In truth, this desperate gambit didn’t lead to the collapse of Rubio’s campaign. It was the collapse of his campaign that led to this desperate gambit.