Thursday, March 10, 2016

Marco's Maddening March

No, you did not predict this.  Nor did I. 

It is March 10, and the two men most likely to be the Republican nominee are a noisy blowhard with a bizarre grab-bag of policies that defy description or even reality, and a nasty scourge who approaches his own crabbed view of purity and making enemies with the same Messianic zeal.

How about the wunderkind, Marco Rubio?  Crashing—in the four primaries this Tuesday night, he failed to take a single delegate, and wasn’t competitive in any of them.  His numbers in his home state of Florida are frightening—if five recent polls are any indication, and the early voting didn’t lead to a major Marco lead, Trump is going to take the state comfortably.   A Rubio campaign manager had a virtual screaming match on CNN to deny that some staffers are telling Marco to withdraw before next Tuesday, but there’s every reason to believe that those conversations have to be taking place, because a disaster in Florida could be a body-blow to his future political prospects for any office.

How did it go so wrong so fast? In part, because he got it so fast.  The Rubio package—intelligent, good-looking, charismatic, eloquent, and Cuban—was catnip to influential Republicans.  They elevated him very rapidly—and his electoral success convinced them that their bet was a good one.  It was effectively a blitzkrieg strategy—move fast, hit hard, and the logistics will either take care of themselves, or become irrelevant because you’ve already taken the prize. 

One of the problems with this approach in politics is that it is both time specific and personality specific.  Let’s start with personalities.  Marco did not exactly pay his dues or wait his turn—and that didn’t just apply to his relationship with Jeb!  You can view this as a political variation of Newton’s Law—every promotion Marco got, every endorsement, every contributor, had to have come at the expense of someone else—probably someone more senior, and quite likely, someone more accomplished.

People don’t like getting passed over—especially for someone who seemed like a trust-fund kid—and there was always someone stretching out a helping hand for Marco. One of the more interesting aspects of his Presidential campaign is that it’s arguable that he might have had a hard time winning re-election to the Senate, if he chose to run.  He's not exactly loved or respected for his efforts. 

Translating this approach to a Presidential context created a fascinating dynamic.  Go back and watch the body-language of the debates and see the differences in the interaction between the Governors, Cruz, Trump, and Rubio. Trump, they clearly see as a loon, and Cruz as an ideologue. But Marco seems to almost offend them. Why, they seem to be asking themselves, are powerful people in the party telling them to be nice to Marco?  Why are they being pushed out the door in favor of Marco?  Why is Marco himself telling them they should leave the field to him? And why is Marco’s Super Pac spending so much money tearing them down, instead of going after Trump and Cruz—the two people that the Establishment simply cannot abide.

How three remaining Governors reacted is a case-study in personalities. Kasich, as is Kasich’s wont, has kept his own counsel.  He’s rebuffed Rubio’s demands that he drop out, but has largely stayed out of the scrum.  Christie did what Christie does—he lost it.  Furious after Rubio’s supporters buried him under negative ads in New Hampshire when he thought he was gaining traction, he tore into Marco, diminishing them both a bit, then had a self-immolating Stepford-Wives moment and endorsed Trump.  Jeb’s approach is particularly telling.  Jeb has scheduled individual meetings with Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich, but CBS reported that word from inside the Rubio camp is that they might not even want an endorsement—might damage the Rubio brand.  Perhaps nothing tells you more about the Bush/Rubio relationship, and, more specifically about Rubio, than Rubio’s apparent contempt.   

Does this matter, now that Christie and Bush are road-kill, and Kasich possibly not far behind?  Yes, and no.  This is where the “logistical” part of Marco’s strategy may ultimately bring him down.  He lacks the infrastructure in key states—he’s even weak in Florida.  Why is anyone’s guess, but it’s reasonable to draw the inference that he feels others will provide it for him.  This confidence (or arrogance) is presumably drawn from experience, but it may be misguided.  Rubio’s team seems to be clinging to two slim reeds: He will get the institutional support, and either Republican primary voters will come to their senses and, after Marco holds Florida, line up behind him and actually deliver sufficient delegates in the winner-take-all states to come, or, no-one will go to Cleveland with a majority, and a grateful Party will turn to him as a savior.

Are outright winner or savior still possible, now that blitzkrieg is a dead strategy?  Possible, but dependent on a lot of things going perfectly—and going perfectly soon, since Cruz (no matter how disliked) is getting a second look to bring down the mighty Trump.  The bigger question may have less to do with tactics, or whether Marco is really loved by his peers, or even whether he’s sufficiently hardworking.   It’s a matter of vibe, and an acknowledgement that there is a huge tectonic movement going on in the electorate that is almost as much emotional as it is ideological.  These changes are idiosyncratic—they don’t necessarily fit earlier voting models, and they involve multiple plates, all in motion at the same time. 

The catalyst is that people feel under assault—their values, their economic security, their communities.  And they are upset that government has failed to prioritize their needs.  They have different perspectives on who is to blame—it could be Obama, or the economic elites, or immigrants, or terrorism, or obstructionist Republicans, or Progressivism, but many are looking for someone to address their anxiety and their anger.   

This is where Rubio’s greatest misjudgment might have been made. He has been selling the only product he seems to have, a slick electability.  The problem is that he’s an emotional cipher who teeters out of control when he goes off script. Every one of the other candidates have a lane. Trump is going to thumb his nose at the world, and Cruz is going to flay Democrats.  Kasich is avuncular.  But Rubio—what does he offer?  He’s just about as conservative as Cruz but doesn’t have the ability to project an assassin’s promise.  His self-absorption keeps him from carrying off Kasich’s almost pastoral approach.  And Trump is, well, Trump. 

That is the paradox of the Rubio campaign, for all his personal gifts.  His ambition has always exceeded his willingness to serve.  As the Orlando Sun-Sentinel (who had previously endorsed Jeb) said recently "If you think Marco Rubio can unite the Republican Party under a winning banner, vote for him. But remember he has almost no experience, and has done little but run for office.  Then, he when he gets in office, he doesn't go to work very much." 

That just isn't going to cut it this year, and it should never be enough.  In January, Marco will pack up the few things he's left in his office and go home. He decided last year the Senate wasn't good enough for him.  Perhaps, finally, he will have realized that his candidacy didn't catch fire because he doesn’t really stand for anything that people value in their gut.  And when you don’t stand for something—when you don’t stand with someone—they won’t stand with you.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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