Post-Debate Thoughts: Forget Trump, Rubio Needs a Message and a 21st Century Campaign Team
Having been occupied with other matters, I have not updated this site as much as I might have wished. That does not indicate a lack of interest in following current events, though it does involve a lack of happiness with the turns many of them have taken. In recent weeks none has been more disappointing than the Republican primary race.It is easy to express such frustrations in a single word, Trump, and if I were to do that I would be one among hundreds if not thousands who happily shoveled all of the problems of the process onto his shoulders. But Trump is not the problem; his mainstream opponents are. Trump's crime has been to call them on the increasingly outdated and intellectually bankrupt strategy Republican candidates have been running for the last eight years. That strategy and its failures, more than anything else, explain the difficulties Marco Rubio has had, and why at this moment despite a race that has been designed for him and the support of virtually the entire American media he has failed to seize his chance. As such I think it is worth putting forward a few thoughts.
1, Youtube Has Fundamentally Changed GOP Politics
And I don't mean by providing really stupid questions from random bloggers at the candidates debates. Youtube and recording have changed politics in a much more serious way, namely by making the traditional Republican campaign strategy dysfunctional.
The normal progression of a post-2004 Republican presidential candidate can generally divided into three distinct phases. The first involves the media discovering a young and up and coming politician. Sometimes this politician is noticed for their political achievements – Chris Christie and Marco Rubio were discovered in this way. Other times they are identified with policies, which was the case with Scott Walker. In either event what follows in the “speculation” a period in which the actions of the future candidate are closely watched. Such candidates are expected to appear statesmanlike by taking on difficult problems and trying to resolve them. Proposing unpopular solutions is usually an easy way to win media attention. It does not matter whether the Ryan Budget or Immigration Reform failed, or whether the policies in question would have been good things had they passed, what matters is that the future candidates took them on.
The second phase begins with the actual primary process, and here the entire political incentive structure reverses itself. Whereas in phaseone heresy was rewarded, in this phase the goal is to pander to as many hard-line interest groups as possible, to minimize one's original ideas, and to act as much as possible as a parrot well-versed in some the really awful handouts that fill up the recycle bins after College Republican conferances. Candidates compete with one another to deny any earlier apostasies while excusing each other of having commited such sins in the past. It was in this phase that Mitt Romney, the formerly pro-choice, pro-gay rights governor of Massachusetts accused Newt Gingrich of believing in man-made climate change, and Rick Santorum of being soft on abortion. For the last two months, Marco Rubio has based his entire strategy on trying to claim that Ted Cruz once supported immigration reform, and that he, Marco Rubio, is actually more conservative than either Cruz or Trump.
In the third phase the candidate selected tries hard to pretend that phase two did not happen and revert to phase one, usually with the help of a media that felt awkward all the way through phase two. In 2012 however, this effort went off the rails for Mitt Romney. The very bitterness of the primary campaign provided plenty of video evidence which allowed Barack Obama to portray him as a right-wing extremist in the general.
In 2016, by contrast, the system has broken down back in phase two. That breakdown has come in the form of the complete tone-deafness of the Rubio campaign, which has insisted on following the Romney playbook of rewriting the history of their candidate despite video evidence. The result was painful moments last night, as Rubio, when confronted with video evidence of his belief in man-made climate change and support for immigration reform, proceeded to continue deny the existence of evidence as if his mere statement would be enough. And for the vast majority of the battered Republican establishment it was enough, as they rushed to find any sign of salvation from the Trump/Cruz apocalypses. Amidst their jubilation over Rubio's “victory” over Cruz, none bothered to consider whether any non-tribal Republican would have found videos of those exchanges anything other than horrifying.
The irony is that none of this was necessary. How hard would it have been for Rubio to say regarding the issue of Cap and Trade - “There is substantial evidence that the climate is changing as it has done many times in the past. Humans may be contributing to it, though the degree to which they are is uncertain, as is what we can do about it. What I will say is that our economy should not be jeopardized out of ill-considered panic.” Doing so would have avoided directly contradicting video evidence, or repeating what looked like blatant falsehoods, while at the same time satisfying the party on policy grounds and the general electorate on those of tones. Instead, the response we got, was an explanation that was easily falsifiable. The simple fact is that any effort of Marco Rubio to behave at a debate in the general in the same way he has at the last several primary encounters would be to invite disaster. Al Gore was roasted for exaggerations. The whole post-debate media narrative would be a circus of disproving every Rubio remark.
This raises what I think is the key question of this year. I do not think Donald Trump can win a general election, though I suspect he may do better than people expect. The most competitive contest therefore involves Rubio, but most analysis have ignored the most vital issue - the quality of the candidate and campaign. Rubio supposedly has one of the most young and savvy campaign teams in the GOP race. He has attached himself to the idea of "Reform Conservatism", which while not without problems, was at least supposed to be about something. Is Rubio's current approach the result of massively cynical calculation, that to do anything else would be to risk disaster and that everything can be reversed in the general? In that case, current decisions are merely high-risk.
The more worrying prospect is that Rubio's campaign team actually believes they can get away with what they have been attempting in the primary. That somehow Rubio can say one thing, debate moderators can then play clips of him saying the opposite, and he can then disassemble with no consequence. If that is the case, then the GOP is in for rougher fall than in 2012, if Rubio is not nuked over the summer by the Clinton campaign in an effort to portray him as a "liar". No charge is more effective against a Washington politician, and given Hillary Clinton's high negatives, she would see little downside.
The Republican political consultant class is still living in 2004 or arguably earlier given the use the Bush campaign put videos of John Kerry saying he vote for the Iraq War before he voted against it. Trump and Cruz at least have strategies that don't require playing by the rules of the traditional media. Trump intends to maximize turnout within his bubble of support; Cruz to run as Trump without Trump's baggage. Rubio's plan is to run as the GOP JFK which requires him to be trusted and likable, and there is no better way to undermine that than to be viewed as a liar or someone who views the electorate as worthy of contempt.
This leads into the second issue.
2, Marco Rubio's Wider Campaign Strategy is Low-Risk, Low-Reward
That is not a popular view. The general assumption in the political media is that Rubio is the only hope the party has of winning. David Wasserman recently opined for Fivethirtyeight that he had the potential to expand beyond theparty's base to attract women, minorities, millennials, and moderates. Wasserman's views reflect conventional wisdom, and in his case are supported by limited polling evidence, but not by common sense. What precisely is the appeal of the Marco Rubio who stood on stage at the Fox News debate on January 28th to any of those groups? Will Hispanics be won over by his last name, an advantage he shares with Cruz when he went out of his way to deny he ever supported immigration reform even when confronted with video evidence and when his entire campaign strategy seems to be to try and accuse Ted Cruz of all people of being soft on it? What about moderates when he went out of his way to have zero-daylight policy wise with Cruz and Trump?
What is apparent is that there is a massive gulf between Marco Rubio the potential Republican nominee as perceived by the national media and Marco Rubio the candidate who has actually been present the last year. These differences have their origin in the strategy every Republican “establishment” candidate has adopted since 2008. Rather than selling themselves on electability, the leading Republican establishment candidates, Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012, have gone out of their way to try and portray themselves as the most conservative candidate and to attack their foes as being liberal. Hence in 2008, Mitt Romney presented himself as the conservative alternative to John McCain despite his record in Massachusetts, attacking him from the right on gay rights, abortion, and taxes. This reached the level of self-parody in 2012, when Romney spent most the campaign fighting destroying a series of challengers by utlizing his enormous financial advantage to portray Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum of all people as liberals.
The establishment such that it is appears to have taken the wrong lessons from Romney's experience. Romney did not prevail because he was the most conservative candidate or because of his messaging. He prevailed because he was the only candidate with the money to get his message out consistantly, and compared to his opponents the only viable general election candidate. As such, Mitt Romney, who attacked Santorum and Gingrich for liberalism ended up relying on moderate voters to save him.
Marco Rubio's campaign team has appeared to be conducting an experiment in trying to run Mitt Romney's campaign without Romney's financial advantages. All possible theories of a Rubio primary win, much less general election viability depend on his supposed appeal to moderates. But Rubio's entire messaging has been based around presenting himself as the most conservative candidate in the field. His major focus at the past several debates as well as on the airwaves in Iowa has been to portray Ted Cruz as a flipflopper on immigration reform and a liberal on taxes. Ignoring the difficulties of trying to paint Ted Cruz who has spent the last three years establishing himself as the most right-wing member of the Senate as a liberal, it is unclear what exactly the purpose of this strategy is. The main consequence of the Rubio/Cruz clashes over immigration at the past few debates has been to focus attention on the issue, and hence on an area where both candidates have shifted their positions.
There is an inherent contradiction between a tactical approach of trying to position Marco Rubio as the most ideologically consistent conservative candidate, and a strategy of relying on desperate moderate voters to deliver him the nomination. It relies on the tribal identity of Republican moderates being strong enough that Rubio's supposed general election strength will force them to accept him as they accepted Romney. Yet this requires Rubio to prove he is the strongest general election candidate, which given that he is less charismatic than Trump and a worse debater than Cruz, yet saddled by his own decision with many of their own policy positions means that is far from self-evident.
The core assumption of the Rubio campaign is that once the other moderate/establishment candidates leave the race, Rubio will inherit the votes of Bush, Kasich, and Christie. But there is a real risk that their voters simply won't bother to participate. Or, they may very well decide that Rubio is not the option that is ideologically closest to them, because on a host of issues he is not the most appealing candidate to moderates outside of one specific type.
3. Rubio's brand of Conservatism is not popular
There has been a growing tendency within the Republican intellectual space to criticize the anti-intellectualism of the Tea Party, its supposed intolerance of dissent, and its tendency to launch ideological witch hunts. Ultimately, every one of those charges can be applied to the party elites, albeit on different issues. Since the 1980s, when Republicans at least considered painful ways of achieving the goal of balanced budgets, and the 1990s when creative forms of health and welfare reform were considered, the Republican party has become increasingly intolerant of any dissent whatsoever on economic policy. This applies just as much to the so-called “Reform Conservatism” of the Weekly Standard which Marco Rubio wrapped himself around rhetorically before dropping all of its policy implications.
To the extent the party has been willing to consider any sorts of concessions they have been in the sphere of social issues. Gay Marriage can be conceded, albeit not in a primary campaign. Immigration reform considered. But the idea that one could trade keeping any form of Estate tax whatsoever for concessions on every single other issue imaginable is treason on par with embracing ISIS and advocating Sharia law.
The irony of the primary campaign is that the candidate with most right-wing social positions, Donald Trump, is also the one with most heretical economic ones. Given that Rubio cannot outbid the Donald on social issues – for every Rubio promise to deport, Donald Trump can advocate executing illegal immigrants and selling their organs to fund his wall – the major clash with Donald Trump has come on Foriegn policy, where Marco Rubio's problem seems to be that Trump and Cruz have adopted the logical position that fighting a Turkish-supported ISIS with ground troops while also imposing a no-fly zone on Russian aircraft to overthrow Assad in alliance with Turkey and the Sunni states is incoherent nonsense. Beyond that, Rubio's defense of “Conservatism” has become a defense almost solely of lowering taxes for top earners beyond all else. It should not be anywhere near as shocking discovery as it appears to have been to the Rubio campaign to discover that these positions are unpopular even within a Republican primary.
Kasich has sold himself on his ability and interest in actually governing, not being an ideological warrior. Amidst his travails, Bush has tried to do the same. Rubio has portrayed himself as "orthodox", not as "pragmatic" and for those who do not buy that modern conservative orthodoxy is a sufficient blue print to governing, exactly the people who would prefer Cruz, then it is unclear what the connection is.
Ultimately I think Rubio is well placed to stumble through still. But his current travails are not because the party base have gone insane but because he has given almost no one particularly good reasons to vote for him.