Watching the fall out from last night’s debate, the Rubio camp’s response strikes me as very Clintonesque. But the key for me is that’s not a negative word and in this case I don’t mean it in a negative way. I’m just dubious it will work. The Rubio camp – and in this case, I use that collective term very intentionally – is responding to last night’s gaffe in the best and only way they can. Don’t run away from it, don’t ignore it: try to repackage it and drive right into it at full speed with a semi-truck. This is a big thing I remember from Clinton’s 92 campaign. Never go on defense. Find a way to repackage it as offense and keep hitting, keep running forward.
In this case, Rubio’s new line is that well, he’s going to keep repeating that line basically forever because he just believes it so damn hard and it’s just that important. His canned, scripted, programmed-in-advance nature is just evidence of how committed and principled he is! (Yes, I’m laughing.) And it let’s him go back to the darkly vicious attacks on Barack Obama, which are certainly applause lines for his base.
I don’t think that will work. At least not if you saw what happened.
David Frum captures what happened here pretty astutely, even in the word-straw medium of Twitter. It’s not about how many times Rubio repeated something he extra-double believes. All politicians repeat certain lines again and again. It’s message discipline. Most people only see your stump speech once or twice. It’s that he panicked on stage and lacked the presence of mind to think on his feet and keep retreating to his rehearsed lines even after they made no sense in the context and even after he was being criticized – at that very moment – for robotically repeating rehearsed lines.
Frum also gets into the critical difference between Rubio and Obama – in terms of the dynamics of the election and in their context of their very different campaign audiences.
Obama was certainly untested and relatively politically inexperienced in 2008. But voters actually could know quite a lot about him – he’d written a quite revealing, pre-campaign autobiography. And he’d gotten the key issue of the election – Iraq – right. For Republican voters, Rubio got the key question of the election – immigration – wrong. In the context of a relatively unknown and untested newcomer, that’s a critical difference.
Political obsessives usually over-estimate the impact of the things they obsess over. And to me it’s not clear how much immediate effect Rubio’s stumble will have. I doubt many confirmed supporters will abandon him over it. For more damaging is that he is now facing two and a half days of press and campaign mockery rather than two and a half days of press cheering about inevitability. He was not a frontrunner needing to avoid a mistake. He was someone who was behind but appeared to be making rapid progress. I think this may seriously blunt what seemed to be a rush of voters in his direction.
The deadliest thing for a politician is always becoming an object of mockery and ridicule. That’s what Rubio’s facing during a critical two day period.