In the recent GOP debate, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie battered Florida Senator Marco Rubio repeatedly. He showed no mercy. At every turn, Christie critiqued Rubio, used his words against him, and laid out his record—or lack thereof—to make an incredibly important and damning statement: Marco Rubio is unprepared to be President of the United States.
However, Christie went further. He didn’t simply level the charge that Rubio was unprepared. He said something even more fatal. Christie said Rubio was just like Obama—an inexperienced first term Senator not prepared for the job.
On that point, however, Christie was flat-out wrong. On Obama’s worst days in the 2008 campaign, he never performed as poorly as Marco Rubio did in last night’s debate. Despite running against two competent and more experienced Democratic opponents, Barack Obama ran a powerful campaign and climbed the mountain to become his party’s nominee eight years ago. Even with that impressive rise, Obama had rough days in the campaign.
Obama received pushback in 2007 when a leaked campaign memo labeling Senator Clinton “(D-Punjab)” because of her connections to India. Obama ultimately had to apologize for the line. In 2008, right before the New Hampshire primary, he dismissively said Senator Clinton was “likeable enough,” a line that played into the idea that, as a woman, Clinton was being treated differently on the campaign trail. Within days, Obama’s lead in New Hampshire would dissolve and Clinton would go on to win that primary.
Obama caught flack for those lines, and several others, but the criticism of Obama in 2008 rarely played into any existing narrative about his weaknesses—with the exception, perhaps, of being aloof. Yet, even the charge of arrogance is not a disqualifier for the presidency. In fact, many would argue any president needs a bit of it to succeed.
Rubio put on a disastrous performance in last night’s debate. Unlike Obama, however, his bad moments—and there were several—played precisely into the narrative about Rubio’s robotic, overly guarded, heavily scripted campaign that masks a candidate not ready for the highest office. Christie lured him into the trap, but Rubio seemed totally unable to resist relying on his rehearsed rhetoric.
What Christie called Rubio’s “memorized 25 second speech” argued that Obama wasn’t clueless and that “he (Obama) knew exactly what he was doing” in changing America for the worse. The first use of the line seemed on point. However, Rubio then repeated it—three times in a row—in response to Christie’s relentless criticism. The problem for Rubio was not that the line is something Republican voters would disagree with. The problem was that the line had nothing to do with the subsequent responses. It was as if Rubio covered his ears, heard nothing of what was said to him or about him, and simply assumed the Obama slam would be fitting. It was not.
Rubio sounded robotic. Rubio sounded rehearsed. Rubio sounded like an amateur unable to speak without notes and guidance. He sounded exactly like the criticism Bush and Christie and others had been leveling all week.
As seconds ticked off, Rubio looked younger, smaller, and less appealing, and after each response from Christie, he repeated his same line. Like a swimmer in rough seas grabbing the anchor instead of the life preserver, Rubio sank quickly.
Barack Obama never looked that bad and never put in a performance that was so weak. In 2008, Democratic opponents tried to paint Obama in the same light—narrow, overly rhetorical, and unprepared. In the 2008 primary, Clinton’s “3AM phone call” advertisement sought to hammer the point home. While the ad was effective, Obama didn’t play into it. He didn’t flub a question on a grand stage that made viewers think he was a kid interviewing for an adult’s job. Rubio did.
For a young, fresh-faced, new presidential candidate, the charge of being unprepared is tough to overcome. The most disastrous response is to help your opponents make that charge credible.
Chris Christie was masterful last night in picking apart a competitor and giving that competitor enough rope to hang himself. Christie used the debate rules to his advantage, seizing the opportunity to respond when his name was mentioned and floating the carrot of self-destruction by mentioning Rubio’s name. Surely, Christie was prepared for the exchange—although the execution sounded organic and not rehearsed and robotic. Yet, despite that preparation, Christie never could have dreamed that the exchange would do the damage it did.
Christie accomplished everything he wanted to last night, and Rubio helped him accomplish even more. And on CNN’s State of the Union Sunday morning, Christie declared “the whole race changed last night.” He may be right about that. Though it didn’t change because Christie made Rubio look like Obama; it changed because he made Rubio look much worse.