Marco Rubio's Embarrassing and Robotic Speech Says Volumes About His Campaign Strategy

By Doctor Comrade

[Update: 2/9/2016 10:59PM PSTRubio's paltry fifth place finish in New Hampshire's primary endangers his campaign. In his concession speech, he admitted that his performance on Saturday was at least partially to blame. Nate Silver theorized on FiveThirtyEight's live blog that Rubio did do better among voters who decided to vote for him in the last couple days, which might show that the debate didn't hurt him. However, Silver also said he may have scared off many late deciders. In any case, Rubio's message failed to break through, and now the "establishment lane" is a complete mess. Trump and Cruz have built early leads, and the establishment has yet to coalesce around one candidate. This is an ideal scenario for Trump and a nightmare for Rubio. He'll need to improve his "soundbites," as I argued in the original post below.

In the mass media era, pundits have been quick to point out that politicians are no longer trying to make substantive and meaningful speeches, but instead are trying to deliver witty, pithy, and memorable soundbites that get played repeatedly on cable news and are easily quotable and tweetable.

In Saturday's GOP debate, Marco Rubio, like the catchphrase spewing robot that he is, used the same canned line three times: "And let's dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing. Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world." His speechwriter would have been proud of his delivery the first time, but his repetition of the line garnered well-deserved criticism, including while he was on the debate stage from the blustery Chris Christie. (Chris Christie is, of course, just another kettle, shown by his claim that he directly fought terrorism during every debate so far.)

Other candidates and pundits saw an opportunity to lambaste the Republican wunderkind, but that's only added to the spectacle of Rubio's campaign. There's no guarantee that his flub even cost him the debate. He might end up like Romney: everyone's second choice who eventually gets the nomination. If that's his ultimate goal, soundbites like this one will help him accomplish it.

What is more troubling for America, however, is the fact that Rubio is touting American exceptionalism in accordance with the all-too-familiar Republican strategy: Obama is an anti-American, patriotism-hating foreigner who is purposefully destroying the country. (Refer to this list of quotes from Obama concerning his beliefs in American exceptionalism.) However, I need not defend Obama.

Rubio's campaign, like his fellow Republicans, reminds us that the Republican deck of cards is startlingly non-diverse, like playing Poker with a deck in which every card is a 7.

  Six of a kind, and one Joker.

Six of a kind, and one Joker.

We should, however, pay close attention to Rubio's oft-repeated criticism of the president. We can start at the beginning: "let's dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing." There have been two distinct strains of thought concerning Obama's presidency: he's incompetent or he's evil. Rubio is clearly advocating this second strain, constructing a straw-man Obama that resembles something more like the Antichrist than Dan Quayle or Jimmy Carter (please click this link if you need a good chuckle).

The notion that Obama "knows exactly what he's doing" is indicative of this Republican canard: Obama (and by extension, his acolytes Clinton and Sanders) seeks to intentionally harm the US in numerous ways. But saying so allows Rubio to look like he has a deeper understanding of Obama's policies. As a candidate routinely criticized for his lack of experience, Rubio has to position himself as an expert, someone who deftly analyzes the pitfalls of Obama and the Democratic Party. Calling Obama incompetent is easy because it positions any Republican as being superior to him. However, calling him evil allows Rubio to offer positions to remedy the president's un-American policies, and therefore differentiate himself from a field that includes bizarre outsiders like Trump and Carson, boring insiders like Bush and Kasich, and unelectable demagogues like Cruz. Rubio gets to appear knowledgeable, crafty, and strangely moderate, while at the same time engaging in a well-worn critique that should sound familiar to many Republican voters, the kind of people he needs to win primaries.

The second half of the quote is the typical ideological precondition of American exceptionalism. To say "Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world" is to posit an essential characteristic about the identity of America, which is that it is a wholly separate entity, not only superior to the rest of the world but also distinct from it. In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney accused Obama of turning the US into a "European-style entitlement society." Now in 2016, Rubio is not only attacking Obama, but he's also slyly attacking Sanders as well, who has touted the social democracy practiced in Denmark and other European countries. Coupled with an overt attack on Obama is the subtextual attack on Sanders, setting up a possible debate strategy that will be used repeatedly if Sanders wins the nomination for the Democrats.

The second side of this strategy is Rubio trying to court Trump supporters without engaging in the same dick-swinging as Trump--that is, only to hint at the size, not brag openly about it. Rubio is counting on people to see him rephrasing Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan in more coded language. Rubio insists that Obama has diminished the strength of the US, and he will restore it. Not only does this make Rubio look like he has the temperament that Trump clearly lacks, it also makes him look intelligent, experienced, and confident. Rubio is, like Obama was in 2008, an inexperienced US Senator running against a tough field. And he's a good speaker, drawing comparisons to Obama's 2008 success. However, Rubio has to translate that rhetorical gift into votes, and so we can see him attempting to pick off the more intelligent Trump supporters with quotes like this.

The silly repetition aside, Rubio's soundbite has been heard numerous times by the exact kind of people he's looking to grab, and to them, his repetition might not be so grating. This is the kind of thing Republican primary voters want to hear, after all. They want "testicular fortitude" from a leader who promises to rebuild America's purportedly crumbling reputation, and the overwhelming majority of Republicans don't think Trump is the right man to do it.

Rubio is rapidly becoming the favorite establishment candidate. He is using the same critique of Obama that we've been hearing for eight years, and he's using it against a wavering Trump and an unelectable Cruz. Yes, his stupid repetition of a talking point looked silly, but it's a talking point nonetheless, and people are talking about it. In a race overshadowed by Trump, this is--ironically--the kind of coverage Rubio needs.