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!

David Waywell writes and cartoons at his blog The Spine.

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12 Comments on "A Very Public Execution"

  1. Jaw dropping that someone who was so slow to react to this sort of situation and so oblivious to the hole he was digging for himself can have made it into the senate let alone come this far in the Republican race. This is a man who has been in politics for fifteen years!. It reminds me of this sketch by NTNON where the president can’t answer any questions without his press secretary.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s2n87YKSjrA

  2. David,
    After reading each of your columns, I try and persuade myself that you are only writing satire and that you attempt to treat each of the political parties in the USA evenly.
    However, after each read, I am more and more persuaded that you are in the bag for the Democrats. I won’t even disrespect your point-of-view by trying to view it via liberal spectacles – you are simply a socialist and all your writing is poisoned by that slant. Please don’t insult us by claiming that the occasional cartoon makes you even-handed. Like Hamlet’s Player Queen, you protest too much.
    In your latest post you impugn that Christie is a no more than a hit man – perhaps because he is the Governor of New Jersey you confuse him with Tony Soprano. In the past you have made comments about Donald Trump’s hair style. Ted Cruz you build up by being overly generous in your praise (in you previous post) only to shoot him down this time. The same could be said about Marco Rubio.
    If there is one common thread in your posts, it is this: Republicans/conservatives bad, Democrats/socialists good.
    Whilst writing about the UK you have lampooned David Cameron’s hair – surely there are a few Conservative policies that are worthy targets of your literary barbs. Do you have to sink to ad hominem insults?
    I am still waiting for you to write a genuinely satirical article, making fun of the Democrats with the same fervor that you are happy to exhibit when writing about the Republicans.
    Despite my truly held belief that you are incapable of criticizing any left wing policy, I enjoy your writing (if only because it reinforces my own views that left-wing sympathizers are as blinkered as a steeple-chaser and have about as much ability to see any good in opposing views as my dog has in seeing any good in stray cats).

    • Stacey, I’m delighted you are confused because that means you probably understand me. I don’t have politics and haven’t had politics for many years. I am not ideological and I am not loyal to any party. I take people as I find them and, really, that’s always my first point of reference. Do I like a person? Their politics are really secondary. First I ask: do I find them generous, witty, human, warm, intelligent, and/or likable? I’ve liked Obama as much as I liked George W Bush. Both Blair and Brown annoyed me as much as Cameron annoys me now. I always liked William Hague and David Davies, who I always thought would be the Tory leader. Never liked Kinnock but did quite like Milliband, though always knew he would lose. None of those judgements are based on politics but simply my reaction to their characters. I believe that is how most people approach politics.

      You should also understand that my writing and my cartoons come from different parts of my brain. I don’t want to be moderate or forgiving when I’m drawing a cartoon, whereas I would be more moderate when I’m writing. There are exceptions. I dislike Cameron intensely but not because he’s a Tory. I dislike him because I think he’s a shallow, egotistical man incapable of thinking hard about any subject. I detest his desperate popularism and his anti-democratic tendencies. Whilst I do like some of Corbyn’s message, I think he’s a pretentious oaf leading a rabble who would be incapable of forming a government. Boris Johnson I think is a bright but greedy man hiding behind the mask of a buffoon and George Osborne I consider the vilest of the lot. If I don’t write about the shadow government it’s because, frankly, they’re an irrelevance. Should they get into power, I will treat them exactly how I treat the government.

      As to American politics, I am currently focussed on the Republicans because I find them far more interesting than the Democrats. For what it’s worth: I think Bernie Sanders is an extremely decent man who will never be President and the only question is whether the Democrats will give the Republicans a fight. Hillary I wouldn’t trust as far as I can spit but I might say that about all politicians. I don’t see a great deal of difference between moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans. America is largely ruled from the centre and I don’t expect that to change any time soon.

      As to being critical of the Republicans, I think I have been generous towards Jeb Bush and I was generous to Rubio until I looked at him more carefully and realised that he’s more presentation than he is substance. Ben Carson is plain strange, as with all the deeply religious types in the Republican party. In the very same way I don’t like ideology, I don’t like religion which I consider specious.

      Chris Christie has too much baggage. Carly Fiorina I dislike intensely because I’ve worked for too many people like her. I quite like John Kasich, though I’ve not seen enough of him to really make a solid judgement. He just seems a sound candidate. I also found myself warming to Rand Paul after his last debate performance. I also don’t hate Donald Trump. Yes, that’s right. I don’t hate Trump. That’s just my gut instinct but I’ve watched perhaps 10-20 of his rallies and I think he’s a complete and utter charlatan. Yet there’s something almost honest about his lies. I think he’d be a pragmatic President, making deals where deals need to be made. President Trump doesn’t worry me as much as President Cruz genuinely scares me.

      All of which probably doesn’t explain a thing. I just write from the point of view of being me. All I know is that I regularly receive insults from people on the right as well as on the left. I can’t win but I never set out to win anything. I just enjoy rolling in the chaos that others think makes sense but I believe otherwise.

      • David,
        I enjoy your posts, even if they do make my blood boil and its pressure rise dramatically. My cardiologist probably wouldn’t agree, but you must be doing something right.
        I note your claim that you receive insults from the left as well as the right. I must say, judging by the subject of your posts on TWATW, were you to be hoping for an insult from the left on this site, you shouldn’t hold your breath whilst waiting.
        Pick up the gauntlet I threw down – write a piece critical of the left and/or Hillary Clinton (and not just one token paragraph in a thousand word piece either).
        As I commented earlier – I believe I “have you pegged” – but I would be happy to be proved wrong.
        I too won’t hold my breath.

  3. David you say “America is largely ruled from the centre and I don’t expect that to change any time soon.” Therefore do you believe someone like Trump cannot be elected or that if elected he would have to become more centrist?

    • That’s exactly what I mean and I think you can already see signs of that in Trump’s rhetoric. I was about to reply to your other comment but I’ll do it here. Trump is a salesman. He knows what to say to his audience and that’s why he’s saying what he does. Look at his comments before he decided to run and you’ll see some quite moderate and sensible opinions and none of this ridiculous right wing nonsense he currently shouts. What’s interesting is seeing the gentler stuff creeping in and because he’s said the other stuff, he’s getting right wing audiences applauding when he says things like ‘we can’t have people dying in the streets’ and ‘we need to look at people’. Genuinely think we’ll see more of that in the coming months (but not until he’s really certain of the nomination. In an election, he’ll be more moderate still. As to if he wins: would be interesting but I’d expect it to be no more to the right than dear old Ronnie. Cruz, on the other hand, scares the shit out of me. There is a man driven by ideology and religion. Rather take my chances with a pragmatic if boastful New York businessman if given the choice.

  4. Thanks David very interesting stuff, it is almost like a game with one message to win the Nomination and another to win the White House. If he wins the republican nomination who do you think stands a better chance of defeating Trump on the Democratic side? Clinton or Sanders?

    • Definitely three games. The Democrats are going left for nomination, Republicans go right. They all meet again in a fight for the middle when it comes to the election.

      As to who wins: Cruz no chance. Sanders ditto but not quite as certain as Cruz. Hillary wins against everybody except, perhaps Trump if he moderates and, maybe some real moderate Republican (I still think Trump is a Democrat in disguise). Beginning to see signs of life from Jeb Bush. Would not yet rule him out. Rubio is a busted flush but was never that good to begin with. People praised him without watching his day to day meetings which are as dull as hell and so is he.

      My guess: Trump gets nomination. Hillary just wins but a little. Hillary for President. If, however, Sanders wins nomination, then Trump wins.

      I will probably be wrong. Long way to go and lots could happen.

  5. Thanks very much David .Yes long way to go. If only they did not drag it out so long .At least our elections are snappy but everything is bigger and better over the pond !

  6. Thank You David yes a very apt article and one I will share on Facebook. I particularly liked your comment “Yet when did Britain last see a debate among party leaders that was combative and infused with passion?” so true it is so bland.

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