Chris Christie performed a hit job on Marco Rubio last night. It was ugly to watch and therefore compulsive too. My only surprise was waking this morning and not seeing photographs of an old sedan parked in some New Hampshire underground garage, the political career of Rubio lying ashen yet bloodied in the boot.
‘Poor sap,’ says the wizened Fed whose seen all this before.
‘Wait! I think it’s still breathing,’ says the young recruit straight from Quantico.
There was that level of Hollywood familiarity about what happened last night. Make no mistake. This was a planned assassination.
A few days ago, Chris Christie tested the range and accuracy of his new weapon when he denounced Marco Rubio as ‘the boy in the bubble’. The phrase was all over the media as Christie gave a strong indication that a price had been put on Marco’s head. Christie’s modus operandi was always going to be attacking Rubio’s career as an example of political hot housing and preternatural ambition. Missed votes, little in the way of real world accomplishments: the Senator from Florida is an example of a politician in a rush; so ambitious for the next step up that he fails to properly establish his footing at his current level.
And so it was last night. Rubio had been in flag waving mood, thinking that his third place showing in Iowa meant that he could turn his attention from his Republican challengers and think about the bigger picture. He was busy attacking the Democrats from the start. He was all over Hillary and Obama, finishing with a flourish of patriotism. ‘We are going to re-embrace all the things that made America the greatest nation in the world and we are going to leave our children what they deserve: the single greatest nation in the history of the world.’
The familiar routine, the same places… The hitman from New Jersey must have known it would be easy.
Christie began by repeating the distinction between political rhetoric and political action. ‘First, let’s remember something. Every morning when a United States senator wakes up, they think about what kind of speech can I give, or what kind of bill can I drop? Every morning, when I wake up, I think about, what kind of problem do I need to solve for the people who actually elected me?’
Rubio responded by first going after Christie: ‘Under Chris Christie’s governorship of New Jersey, they’ve been downgraded nine times in their credit rating.’
But then his speech patterns quickened as he found familiar footing in soundbite country. ‘But I would add this… Let’s dispel this fiction that Barak Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s trying to change this country. He wants America to become more like the rest of the world.’
Rubio was now in Christie’s sights.
‘You see everybody,’ said Christie looking straight into the camera. ‘I want the people at home to think about this… That’s what Washington DC does. The drive-by shot at the beginning with incorrect and incomplete information and then the memorized twenty five second speech that is exactly what his advisors gave him’.
Rubio looked wounded. His smile unable to disguise his panic as he fell back into the very pattern that Christie had just asked us to notice.
First came the ‘drive by shot’: ‘Chris, your state got hit by a massive snow storm two weeks ago. You didn’t even want to go back. They had to shame you into going back.’
It was then followed by the memorized twenty five second speech: ‘This notion that Barak Obama does not know what he’s doing is untrue…’
‘There it is,’ crowed Christie. ‘There it is! The memorized twenty five second speech!’
But Rubio could still not stop himself. Social media later described it as being like a robot but, really, it was a death rattle. Rubio launched into a prolonged attack on Obama and the perspicacity of Christie’s observation suddenly became apparent to the audience who groaned loudly. Only moments earlier they’d been on Rubio’s side. Now they’d realised their own culpability in the fraud. It was the single most memorable moment of the night and, perhaps, the campaign so far.
Marco Rubio’s political career won’t be over after last night but he has been damaged and possibly damaged badly because Christie attacked not the meat of policy but the muscle that drives the campaign. The ‘attack and turn’ is habitual to Rubio. It will take time and effort to break a technique that is instinctive. To change analogies: it’s like the footballer who tears his groin and needs to learn to play a different type of game on his recovery. Rubio needs to learn spontaneity, wit, and ability to think on his feet. That won’t be easy and certainly hard to do at the pointed end of a campaign.
Going into the debate last night, Rubio had momentum. His strong third place showing in the Iowa caucus meant that Rubio had risen in the public eye. Could he be the moderate alternative to Cruz and Trump? Rubio had everything he needed to become a frontrunner in the Republican field: the looks, the ethnicity, the youth.
Yet, I’ve never been that convinced. A great boon in this election is that Youtube gives us access to the campaign stopovers that aren’t normally covered in the media. That evidence suggests that Trump might well be unstoppable. The small town gatherings are the day to day reality of the long race for the party nomination and at every one Trump shines. Rubio has been struggling long before last night. Those looks, that ethnicity, that youth… They mean very little when you’re missing personality. Chris Christie pulled the trigger on Rubio but, with hindsight, there was evidence to suggest that Rubio was already a dead man walking. Rubio is a man who wears a casual fleece over his collar and tie. Even his books are unreadable because they’re bland. I know this because I tried to read them. At one point, I thought Rubio might have that bland inoffensiveness that could succeed in the way that allowed Mitt Romney to emerge from a field of big personalities to send the electorate to sleep in the 2012 election.
Last night was about hard truths. Rubio is badly wounded and Chris Christie the hero of the hour. Ben Carson began the evening by causing a log jam on stage, partly down to the candidates inability to hear cues from one of the moderators but also from some inner timidity. His hesitation confirmed what everybody suspected about a temperament unfit to decide the big moments of history. Surely his campaign cannot last much longer.
Ted Cruz, meanwhile, had a largely quiet night, humbled by the accusations levelled at him about his trickery in Iowa. He affirmed his hard line credentials by attempting to justify waterboarding through legal definitions but it sounded as calculated as Donald Trump’s boast that he would bring back ‘a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding’. With this one exception, Trump sounded more moderate than he’s done in the past. Jeb Bush sounded more serious, genuinely wounding Trump a little over the issue of eminent domain, the right of the government to buy private property for public use. Kasich also had a good night, though added a moment of cringe to an evening dominated by awkward moments when he tried to follow Jeb Bush, realised his name had not been mentioned, and finished with ‘thank you all for listening and being patient with all of us tonight’.
Kasich didn’t need to thank us. It hadn’t been a debate that demanded our patience. The night was a wonderful mess, filled with beautiful happenstance by which political careers are broken or made. It leaves moderate Republicans still looking for a viable candidate as their choices dwindle and Tuesday’s vote looks all the more intriguing. We’re at one of those moments in the campaign when it’s very hard to guess what comes next. This is fun!