A funny thing happened on the way to the coronation.
Well, maybe it wasn’t that funny. It certainly was not funny for Marco Rubio, the establishment choice for the Republican presidential nomination.
Just as all thoughtful and sensible Republicans were trying to awaken from a nightmare-- of having to choose between Trump and Cruz, thus trying to measure whom they hated least--lo and behold, Marco Rubio put in a creditable performance in the Iowa caucuses. Not only was he young and fresh-faced, but Rubio, the Republican establishment assured us, was a sure winner.
Said establishment does not have a very good record choosing presidential candidates. Having chosen exactly one winner in the past two decades, its track record leaves a lot to be desired.
It brings to mind the performance of another Republican boy wonder, Paul Ryan when he faced off with Vice President Joe Biden in the 2012 vice presidential debate. We had been assured by the Republican establishment and the conservative intelligentsia that Ryan was the real deal, a great mind, a big thinker, a true intellectual in the line of Ayn Rand.
But then, Joe Biden made Ryan look callow, jejune… in way over his head. Biden made Ryan look more like a boy scout than a serious candidate for major public office. It was one of those moments that turned the tide toward Obama. If Mitt Romney’s first presidential decision was to choose someone who was manifestly too young for the job, what did that say about Mitt?
It did not faze the Republican establishment. Perhaps they were watching a different broadcast. They just made Ryan Speaker of the House of Representatives. Hmmm.
In any event, Republicans who were traumatized by the 2012 debates want above all else to find a candidate who is not going to wilt in the klieg lights. For most of them, that means Trump or Cruz. Thus, good Republicans were flocking to Marco Rubio, to save them from Trump or Cruz… until last night.
Rubio had been sailing above the barrage of negative ads that Jeb Bush had been throwing at him. Last night, he ran into a street fighter, a brawler, a former federal prosecutor named Chris Christie. And, in the faceoff, Rubio came out looking bad. He came out looking like what Christie had been calling him, a boy in a bubble. He looked like a child and he looked scripted and robotic. He could only defend himself against looking robotic by acting even more robotic. He repeated the same line eight times... count 'em.
Since I had already opined a few days ago that Marco Rubio seemed to be coming across as weak, I was somewhat relieved to have been right about at least one thing.
The Daily Mail tells what happened:
Marco Rubio stumbled in Saturday night's Republican primary debate as Chris Christie got the better of him during the GOP's New Hampshire slugfest.
Christie, the governor of New Jersey, hammered Florida's 44-year-old junior senator for repeating canned talking points and leaning on a thin U.S. Senate resume.
'When you're President of the United States, when you're a governor of a state, the memorized 30-second speech where you talk about how great America is at the end of it doesn't solve one problem for one person,' Christie jabbed.
Rubio fell right into Christie's trap as he struggled to respond, repeating the same canned line four times – drawing catcalls on Twitter and a scolding from the New Jersey governor.
Christie laid it on thick as he repeated the attacks he's been catapulting at Rubio from afar to his face in tonight's debate.
Governors are responsible for plowing snow and keeping schools open, he said, holding up his own leadership in New Jersey as a model.
'And when the worst natural disaster in your state's history hits you, they expect you to rebuild their state, which is what I've done,' he said. 'None of that stuff happens on the floor of the United States Senate. It's a fine job, I'm glad you ran for it, but it does not prepare you for President of the United States.'
Rubio gamely responded that last month as New Jersey faced a blizzard, he continued campaigning in New Hampshire.
'They had to shame you into going back,' Rubio told him. 'Then you stayed there for 36 hours and then...left and came back to campaign.'
And pushing back on Christie's contention that he's be as bad for the country as Barack Obama, Rubio said more than once: 'This notion that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing is just not true. He knows exactly what he's doing.'
By the third time he said it, Christie was ready.
'There it is. There it is. The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody,' he interjected.
It was a shaky moment in the campaign for Rubio, who was visibly thrown off his footing by the confrontation with Christie and booing from the audience after what he thought was a money shot.
Then the question turned to Rubio’s inexperience, his lack of substantive achievements:
Christie and other Republican White House hopefuls have turned attacks on Rubio's habitual failure to show up for Senate votes or fight for contested legislation into a pillar of their stump speeches in New Hampshire.
Debate moderators brought up the accusations and Rubio parried concerns about his limited experience by reciting a list of accomplishments he's been touting on the campaign trail.
'If politics becomes, and the presidency becomes, about electing people who have been in Congress or in the Senate the longest, we should all rally around Joe Biden. He's been around 1,000 years,' Rubio said.
As a U.S. senator Biden passed 'hundreds of bills,' he said, and I don't think any of us believe Joe Biden should be President of the United States.'
He also said he's nothing like Barack Obama, another first-term senator who ran for president and Republicans say is running the country into the ground because he didn't have the necessary experience to be commander-in-chief.
'Let's dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing,' Rubio hit back. 'Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world.'
Christie rejected that defense and said, 'Marco, you shouldn't compare yourself to Joe Biden and you shouldn't say that that's what we're doing. ....You have not been involved in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable. You just simply haven't.'
Invoking a bill Rubio regularly counts as a feather in his cap that put sanctions on Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based terrorist group, Christie told him, 'You weren't even there to vote for it. That's not leadership, that's truancy.'
'And the fact is that what we need to do...is not to make the same mistake we made eight years ago,' he said, drawing a comparison between Rubio and Obama. 'It does matter when the challenges don't come on a list of a piece of paper of what to vote yes or no every day, but when the problems come in from the people that you serve.'
Christie said, 'I like Marco Rubio, and he's a smart person and a good guy, but he simply does not have the experience to be president of the United States and make these decisions.'
But, will this exchange move New Hampshire voters? We do not know. The story of the Rubio-Christie dustup is all over the media today, so I suspect that it will have some effect.
Anyone who had been thinking that Marco Rubio was like a ninja warrior, slick and deadly, should have another think. I found it interesting that Rubio brought up the name of Joe Biden. Do you really want a repeat of the Biden-Ryan debates?