Strong Horse, Weak Horse

I believe we can say with a reasonably high level of confidence that Marco Rubio’s quest for the presidency is over. I don’t expect he realizes it yet. I don’t expect he’ll drop out any time soon. But a broad appraisal of the fundamentals should tell us fairly clearly that the end is only a matter of time. Late on Saturday evening I started to think if I could remember a debate where one candidate had damaged another candidate quite that badly in a single encounter. The only instance that came to mind was Lloyd Bentsen’s notorious “you’re no Jack Kennedy” assault on Dan Quayle in 1988.

But on reflection I realized that Christie’s evisceration of Rubio was worse.

First of all, Bentsen’s line was clearly prepared in advance and rehearsed. Quayle was just stupid enough to walk into the ambush – one he’d been warned about in advance. All Bentsen needed to was deliver it crisply in that genteel senatorial voice. More importantly, Quayle still won. It was Bush who won of course and probably in spite of Quayle. But same difference. It was a brief moment of glee for Democrats in a deeply disappointing election. Christie’s assault, on the other hand, required him to be as quick on his feet and extemporaneous as Rubio was rattled and clumsy. The impact was, as Donald Trump would put it, huge.

Here I think it’s worth noting that we really didn’t know the full story until tonight. From one perspective, Rubio’s poor showing tonight was the result of his Saturday evening goof. But at a deeper level it was conclusion of the assault. It was only tonight that we understood the nature of the damage.

As recently as this afternoon, the public polls were not at all clear that Rubio would pay a big price for his debate flop. Had he weathered the fallout and emerged with a respectable second place showing the whole thing would have been dismissed as the obsession of pundits and political junkies. But he didn’t. He goofed and he paid a big price. As did his supporters.

That’s not always the case. Some people are just charmed. Think how many goofy things George W. Bush did in his first campaign. It didn’t seem to matter. Marco Rubio is not charmed. He messed up and he and his supporters paid a big price.

Who would want to put money on him again?

His campaign team seems to realize just how badly that trust has been damaged. As he did in his concession speech tonight, in an overnight email to supporters Rubio said he “dropped the ball” and promised that it would “never happen again.”

But it’s hardly the first time. There was of course the notorious if rather trivial water bottle grab during his 2013 State of the Union response. But that was followed by his far more consequential immigration reform gambit.

Rubio embraced the post-2012 RNC “autopsy” and put himself forward as a charismatic young Hispanic legislator who would both buck and deliver his party for comprehensive immigration reform, setting himself up for a presidential run in 2016 and at least mitigating the GOP’s historic and mounting estrangement from the country’s rapidly growing Hispanic minority.

It was a bold and audacious move at which he failed utterly.

Indeed, more than simply fail, he completely abandoned his own position in the process of failing. By last fall he was reduced to referring to his own bill as something that somehow happened to him and explaining its current irrelevance as somehow having something to do with ISIS. Again and again, Rubio seems to choke at key moments – sometimes in trivial and comical ways and at other times more monumentally.

As I noted two weeks ago, Donald Trump, “says things that would kill a political mortal and yet he doesn’t get hurt … Trump is strong. He does things other people can’t.”

Trump is charmed. Rubio is not. He chokes and he pays for it. The latter part is the clincher. Because those around him do too.

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