Conventional wisdom has it that an argument is lost the moment you start calling people names. The exception to the rule might well be when you’re running for the Republican nomination in an election year. Then the name calling might not mean the end of your campaign but the moment when your campaign really kicks off. Or, at least, that is what Marco Rubio is hoping as he goes snarling his way into Super Tuesday.
After months spent trying to say coherent things in statesmanlike ways, Rubio is now learning to deliver barbs in the manner of a Cuban-heeled Don Rickles. He is attacking Donald Trump’s hair, his face, his money, and (political correctness be damned!) even the colour of his skin. ‘He’s not going to make America great,’ said Rubio in Roanoke, Virginia. ‘He’s going to make America orange!’
The fact that Trump’s policies are more outlandish than they are practical doesn’t have any bearing on Rubio’s plan of attack. If the electorate doesn’t care that Trump’s proposals have less substance than moonbeams, then Rubio has clearly decided that his best approach is to join Trump and trade cheap insults, even about the real size of ‘Trump Tower’.
‘He’s always calling me “Little Marco” and I’ll admit he’s taller than me. He’s six feet two, which is why I don’t understand why he has hands the size of someone who’s five two. Have you seen his hands? You know what they say about men with small hands… You can’t trust them.’
That Rubio is attempting to stand toe-to-toe with Donald Trump is a mark of how desperate Rubio and his establishment backers have become. Trump gained more than momentum with big and bigger wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Victory has lent him credibility and even wary voters will now feel more comfortable joining the long queues of people backing the establishment outsider.
With Super Tuesday now only hours away, the situation will change rapidly and, most likely, see Trump extend his lead over a field that shows no sign of dwindling further. Ohio governor John Kasich has already repeated his vow to stay in the race, at least until his own state votes on March 15th, and Ben Carson seems to be along for the ride, using the exposure to sell a few more books. It’s hard to see much changing in the Republican field in the next week or two. Tomorrow, Ted Cruz will hope to win a majority of the votes in Texas, though with delegates being awarded proportionally, Trump should also walk away with a fair portion of the 155 on offer. It’s getting rather late for one candidate to emerge as a viable alternative to Trump and yet, until that one candidate does emerge, it looks like the anti-Trump vote will continue to be split between Cruz and Rubio. Rubio needs to leverage these dwindling chances to establish himself as the alternative candidate and, unlikely as it seems, force Cruz out of the race.
It’s not obvious that his new tactic will work and not simply because Rubio is not (and has never been) the attack-dog style of politician. Already his attacks feel scripted, prepared gags such as ‘Hair Force One’ being good quips but hardly damaging Trump. Rubio should learn from Trump who generally hammers a candidate on a single damning point. Jeb Bush was the establishment favourite so he quickly became ‘poor’ Jeb and the ‘low energy’ tag constantly demeaned his efforts. When Cruz emerged as a contender he next became Trump’s target. The words ‘nasty’ and ‘liar’ became routine until the labels began to stick. Now the common perception of Cruz is that he is disliked among Republicans in the Senate and that his campaign has flouted the rules of the election. Fair or unfair? It really doesn’t matter.
Attacks on Rubio were bound to follow once Florida’s junior senator started to build support after impressive debate performances in North Charleston, South Carolina and Des Moines, Iowa. He is now a real challenger and so, to Trump, fair game. Rubio has to be seen as weak and small; as the ‘basket case’ that perspires too much and is cosseted by a team of minders who control his stage performances. Most of all, ‘Little Rubio’ is now the ‘choker’ and he’ll no doubt remain the ‘choker’ until Trump wins the Republican nomination.
There you have one secret of Trump’s success: ‘low energy’, ‘nasty’, ‘liar’ and ‘choker’… Repeated enough times, these tags attached themselves to his rival candidates but only because each of these character assassinations has some basis in truth. Bush admitted he was an introvert and that was obvious in public where he struggled to energise rooms, at one point even pleading ‘please clap’ to a crowd. Cruz’s poor relationship with other Senators is well reported but his campaign has definitely played loose with the truth and what both say about the man has become a question fixed at the back of people’s minds. As for Rubio: ‘choker’ is a reference to the moment Rubio was stung by Chris Christie in the debate in Goffstown, New Hampshire when he fell back to repeating a prepared answer. It’s a term that suits Rubio who struggles to establish authenticity, whose youth suggests a fierce ambition perhaps not quite matched by his talent, and whose own battle with a receding hairline (as well as those built-up heels) hints towards a fragility that he has neither the confidence to admit nor strength to overcome.
It’s that frailty which will prevent Rubio from really damaging Trump. Trump is too much of a bruiser and can stand up for himself. Rubio struggles to dominate in off-the-cuff exchanges. Mocking Trump’s hair was as pre-planned as it was ridiculous given that Trump’s hair is now iconic and beyond ridicule. Trump ensured as much by ridiculing itself at the start of his campaign and Rubio is only emphasising a flaw that Trump has long since negated.
If Rubio wants to hurt Trump, he should do as Trump does: find a word that best defined his opponent and to keep repeating it. For example, he should keep emphasising how Trump ducks issues. He should hammer Trump on Trump University. He should demand details as to how Mexico will pay for the wall, how a trade war with China will improve the economy, how he will prevent corporate inversion and force companies to stay in the US, how a Republican came to be friends with Bill and Hillary Clinton, what his tax plans actually mean, and what he really thinks about Affirmative Action. He should do so with recourse to a single word until that label begins to stick. Trump always ‘ducks’ the issues. ‘Forget Donald Trump,’ he should cry. ‘What you’re looking at is Donald Duck…’ It’s cheap and I hesitate to even call it ‘politics’ yet this election has been defined by the cheapest of campaign tricks that work on an electorate are jaded by the stalemate that has characterised American politics for the past four years or more.
‘Nothing changes’ is one of the most common responses you hear from voters. The mood of many, both inside and outside the Republican party, favours a non-establishment figure who will provoke change. That’s why none of the straight-laced candidates look likely to harm Trump who provides the crude novelty to their establishment normality. It’s why his delegate counts will probably take a big leap tomorrow towards the 1237 needed for the Republican nomination and why this might be Rubio’s last chance is to snarl, snap and bite and leave a mark on Trump before the race becomes unwinnable.
David Waywell writes and cartoons at his blog The Spine.