Rightbloggers relieved by Donald Trump’s Iowa dip had a bit of a scare this weekend when Marco Rubio, otherwise known as the More Electable Face of Conservatism, had a well-covered babble break at the most recent GOP debate. Fortunately the brethren came up with several ways to cover for him.
As I boldly predicted last week, one candidate did better than expected in the Iowa caucuses, while another candidate did worse. Since the better-than candidate was Ted Cruz, the eight delegates he won in Iowa was a smashing victory. But the seven delegates Donald Trump won was a massive defeat, at least to hear the upscale rightbloggers tell it.
Nowhere was this more true than at National Review, the venerable conservative flagship that denounced Trump as an inauthentic conservative a few weeks back. NR editor Rich Lowry was ecstatic when Cruz won in Iowa, declaring the result “Conservatism 60%, Trumpism 24%,” and thanking contributors like Glenn Beck “for standing up and taking the abuse for our principles.” “Republicans who have been fearful to attack Trump should drop their reticence,” blared an NR editorial.
“Cruz’s victory also shows the durability of the traditional Republican coalition,” cheered Matthew Continetti in the Washington Free Beacon. Indeed, seemingly freed of the Trump diversion, some behaved as if we were all back to business as usual (i.e., which ultra-conservative would lead rightbloggers to victory in November?). “Rubio vs. Cruz is the most important foreign policy battle of 2016,” announced Philip Klein at the Washington Examiner. The difference between the two men, so far as I could tell from Klein’s article, was that Rubio has compared himself to Reagan (“My views are very much the views of Ronald Reagan,” he crowed, “which I would suggest is a third point on the triangle”) while Cruz has compared himself to Reagan (“My view, just like President Reagan on foreign policy, is if and when we are called to use military force…”), but possibly in a different tone of voice.
As the action shifted to New Hampshire in advance of Tuesday’s primary, things were pretty quiet for most of last week, aside from some stink over Cruz shoveling dirt on a slow-moving but still-living Ben Carson campaign, and candidates Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee falling by the wayside.
Then came Saturday’s debate, which was in many respects the usual debacle, but during the course of which Marco Rubio was, by wide acclamation, so flummoxed when Chris Christie turned his considerable gift for attack on him that Rubio babbled a talking point about Barack Obama Knowing Exactly What He’s Doing repeatedly and in such a way as to cast doubt upon his capacity for sequential thought.
Rubio’s own team spun their man’s performance heroically, if (perhaps hoping not to look smarter than the boss) inartfully (“They were going to try and take out Marco tonight. They failed…AND YES, HE STUCK TO HIS GUNS ON WHY OBAMA HAS BEEN AN AWFUL PRESIDENT!!!”).
Rightbloggers came up for Rubio, too. Even many of those who prefer Cruz because of his right-wing realness are probably looking at Rubio as their safety nominee, so to speak — unlike Cruz, he isn’t hated by everyone who gets to know him, yet he still makes “moderate” candidates like Christie look like…well, like moderates. Also, the media seems to be playing along with him — hell, the New York Times gushed about “Marco Rubio’s soaring oratory, firm command of policy, and steely unflappability” even after the debate — and Republicans can use all the help they can get in that department.
So the brethren approached the Rubio situation with a variety of rhetorical remedies:
Admit the obvious, then change the subject. “Yes, Marco Rubio hurt himself last night,” admitted National Review‘s Jim Geraghty, who then added, “if for no other reason than he had enjoyed a really good week, full of endorsements, a steady rise to second in most New Hampshire polls, and glowing media coverage.” While the “perception” of a bad debate “interrupts the momentum,” Geraghty went on, “even the very best ones fumble,” and he compared Rubio to Peyton Manning, Mariano Rivera, and other sports giants who are not primarily remembered for making fools of themselves.
NR’s Ramesh Ponnuru sniffed “there’s no denying [Rubio] did poorly,” but on the bright side he added, “this debate is not going to kill Rubio, and he did well on life…” By “on life,” Ponnuru meant Rubio would force rape victims to bear their rapists’ children, which Rubio had a chance to reiterate at the debate and which was portrayed as a highlight by rightbloggers who consider that a plus.
Talk down Christie. “Christie wasn’t masterful — not by any means,” moped David French at NR. “Rubio just served him the worst kind of hanging curve.” If Rubio’d had his good stuff Christie woulda whiffed! Some of the brethren wouldn’t give Christie even that much.
Under the glass-half-full headline “A Rattled Rubio Survives New Hampshire Debate,” Matthew Continetti said that “Christie gave New Hampshire reason to doubt Rubio, but I’m not sure he convinced them to abandon him.” Oh, Continetti added: “Christie, by the way, has been falling in the polls. His brusque and dismissive manner in prosecuting the case against Rubio is unlikely to win back support.” Enjoy your victory, jerk!
While admitting “Rubio looked shakier than in prior outings and played into Christie’s argument that he was too tied to talking points,” Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post found Christie “a bit over-the-top and simply overbearing,” and felt his “constant refrain that Rubio was using canned lines wore thin as the night wore on”; also, Christie “badly flubbed a question on abortion late in the debate…” (That is, he didn’t think rape pregnancies should be forced to term.)
Rubin also followed up, “Kasich and Bush should send Christie roses… New Hampshire has one potentially bad (devastating, even) possible outcome for Rubio: Losing second.” And so soon after he won third in Iowa, too!
No one cares. This is a tough one, given that this debate was the best-watched of the year, but Megan McArdle of Bloomberg News argued that “Journalists are sick of hearing Rubio repeat himself. Ordinary voters don’t care,” and “Rubio may be saved from himself by the fact that Super Bowl is tomorrow.”
It’s a media conspiracy. In “Marco Rubio vs. the Media’s Narrative,” Gary Gross of the Minneapolis Examiner said that while liberal media people such as Brit Hume of Fox News may have “declared Marcomentum essentially dead…voters have a funny habit of deciding for themselves. They don’t like Washington talking heads telling them what to think.” Nope! Everybody knows they much prefer to get political opinions from the fellers setting ’round the stove down at the old general store.
This POV is not just for rightbloggers — some mainstreamers like Nate Silver and Philip Bump at the Washington Post thought so, too. Well, sure, why not; Donald Trump routinely releases a lot of hot gas and still tops polls, so maybe it doesn’t matter what Rubio (or anyone) says, — it’s not like these guys did anything really disqualifying, like give an enthusiastic yell at their own rally, or get big donations from Wall Street firms without taking the precaution of being a Republican first.
(PS: Another bold, pre-primary prediction! On Tuesday one candidate will do worse than expected, and another one will do better. Take that to the bank!)