For some time now I've found myself resistant to the charms of Marco Rubio. At a certain level of abstraction, of course, I can grasp the possibility of a young Hispanic from an electorally significant state being the great Republican hope. In the age of Trump, Rubio can even offer the appearance of moderation – he strikes a pose of optimism more than anger, backed up by an “inspiring” biography. And after all, didn't he once support a relatively compassionate approach to immigration reform?

In reality, Rubio is a fanatical rightwinger: an unreconstructed neoconservative in foreign policy – his presidential campaign even adopted the shopworn “new American century” line once peddled by Bill Kristol – who pledges to repeal Obamacare while also proposing massive, irresponsible tax cuts three times the size of George W. Bush’s. His rhetoric about Muslims, as Max Fischer put it, includes “dog-whistling of breathtaking and Trump-level proportions.” Which is of a piece with his litany of nasty accusations about President Obama. (For a helpful rundown of Rubio’s hard right agenda, see Damon Linker’s recent column here.)

But putting aside my distaste for Rubio’s policies and preoccupations, I've never understood, viscerally, why he's the darling of the conservative establishment. With most candidates, even the more distasteful ones, I can grasp in a more-than-on-paper way what their supporters see in them. With Rubio, I just didn’t get it – apart, again, from superficialities. He always seemed like an empty suit to me, with a faraway look in his eyes as he spouted content-free lines about American greatness. 

After the December 15th GOP debate, I wrote this about Rubio:

It's possible I'm underestimating Rubio, but I doubt it. He gives the impression, at least to me, of an eager college student reciting the answers he's memorized – and hurriedly, before he forgets!

As it turns out, during last night’s Republican primary debate Rubio vindicated my skepticism not by forgetting his lines, but mindlessly repeating them. He used a variation of “Let's dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing, he knows exactly what he's doing” no less than four times, three of them coming within a span of just a few minutes. Amazingly, Rubio did this just as Chris Christie called him out for not answering questions and relying on “the memorized 25 second speech” his advisers wrote for him. The effect in real time was devastating, and it only will be amplified as the exchange constantly is replayed in the days ahead. (See the video below – if you haven't already.) It was especially cringeworthy because it seemed less like an aberration than a brutal exposure of his essential unseriousness. It fit seamlessly with the ongoing criticisms of his youth and inexperience, and the suspicion that he might not be up to the task of being president.

What made all this rather satisfying is that it occurred just after the conservative establishment had spent a week claiming Rubio’s third place finish in Iowa actually was a victory. There was much talk of a Rubio “surge,” and the conservative media was doing everything in their power to concoct a narrative to help the candidate’s cause. As inevitably happens with rightwing fantasies, though, reality broke in.

Perhaps Rubio will recover. In a race like this one, very little would surprise me. But last night was about more than Rubio’s ill-fated repetition: Trump turned in a solid performance, and Jeb Bush might have had his strongest debate yet. Christie, who was there to call out Rubio, likewise had a good night: his answer on drug addiction, an important issue in New Hampshire, was particularly effective. Ted Cruz took a few hits early in the debate over his shady appeal to Ben Carson voters in Iowa, but bounced back. John Kasich yet again seemed like the most decent man on stage, and he may very well have positioned himself to exceed expectations on Tuesday. Carson remains shockingly uninformed and should drop out after the New Hampshire primary.

New Hampshire is a state where voters can change their mind quickly, and break for a candidate in the final days before the primary. The latest Monmouth University poll showed that 49 percent of likely Republican voters are not “completely decided” on who they support. So it’s possible Rubio’s debate debacle will be outstripped by his post-Iowa momentum, and that Tuesday’s results will surprise. What seems more likely is that Trump will win New Hampshire, with Bush and Kasich having renewed claims to the “establishment lane” because of their strong performances. Which is to say: whatever measure of clarity some perceived after Iowa will be reduced to chaos. And we all know who Jeb Bush once called “the chaos candidate.”

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.