Bush-Rubio confrontation tells us little about either guy’s fitness to be president

REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Sen. Marco Rubio, right, to former Gov. Jeb Bush: “Someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.”

There’s a reason we sometimes call television an “idiot box.” It is not a medium that particularly promotes thought. Background music and laugh tracks prompt us how to feel and tell us what’s funny, even when it isn’t very funny. The more our politics is taken over by TV values, the more the electorate and the process of deciding whom to support is dumbed down.

A televised debate is really a terrible way to decide whom you should support for high office (except, perhaps, compared to televised political ads). The way the candidates respond to questions from debate moderators, or to the statements of the other candidates, tells us mostly about their strategy of the moment, a little about how their skill at projecting whatever presidential qualities they are trying to project, maybe a touch about their ability to ad lib, and not much about the more important policy questions or even about the personal qualities we think we are looking for in a president.

As the weekend analysts continued to sift through the entrails of last week’s big Republican debate, they remained enamored of the earth-shaking moment when Jeb Bush tried to rebuke Marco Rubio for spending so much time campaigning that he was neglecting his duties as a U.S. senator. Bush has a small point, but I have no trouble believing that this line of attack was designed by his handlers to make him tough. It failed. Bush may be tough, I don’t know. But he doesn’t seem to know how to play a tough guy on camera.

“Someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you,” Rubio replied. And the earth moved.

Omigod. You would think Lincoln had come back from the grave and written Rubio’s material for him. Or do I mean Shakespeare? I always mix those bearded guys up.

Of course Rubio had prepared for that moment. And he delivered his lines far better than poor Jeb (the smart Bush) had delivered his. Rubio even made a perfectly logical point, that sitting senators who run for president always miss a lot of votes, including some candidates whom Jeb Bush supported in the past. Bush (Rubio reasonably argued) is only bothered by this behavior when someone is missing votes to run against him.

It’s not that I have any problem with how Rubio dealt with the badly delivered Bush attack. I only want to argue that this tells almost nothing valuable about either guy’s fitness to be president. Yet the moment is being discussed as if it speaks volumes about what kind of president one or the other of them would make.

On “Face the Nation,” they discussed it thus:

Moderator John Dickerson: “Peggy, what did you make of the sort of ‘Game of Thrones’ moment during the debate when Jeb Bush went after Marco Rubio, who he has helped — had a 17-year career in Florida, and then Rubio came back at him questioning his motives, right back at him. It’s — everybody’s talking about it. What did you make of that?”

Columnist and former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan: “Yes. It’s the reason we are talking about Marco Rubio this morning. And I’m sure many people are. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio did have a long relationship. They’d passed each other and dealt with each other a great deal when they were Florida officials, but it was always understood Jeb Bush was the older brother and Marco was the younger brother. They had their exchange in the debate the other night, and Marco did not walk out as junior, you know? Jeb went at him, and Marco swatted him away. And it was — I have a feeling we’ll remember it as one of those big moments of the primary….”

Jeff Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine: “You know, it’s a — it’s an interesting — it’s an interesting question about this. Jeb Bush has actual executive experience; Marco Rubio doesn’t. But watching that exchange, which one would you rather see arguing with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin in a room? Marco Rubio showed that he can bring an argument strongly; Jeb Bush doesn’t seem — Jeb Bush doesn’t — certainly doesn’t have what Peggy very wisely called ‘a merry aggression necessary’ to enter this kind of combat.”

Peggy Noonan is a gifted wordsmith. Jeffrey Goldberg knows a lot about the Mideast. They both probably know at some level that the ability of the next president to “argue with Putin in a room” is not a real thing.

If you think about the big moments in televised political debates of the past, I hope you will agree that they are all pretty stupid and have little to do with the actual qualities necessary to do the job for which that the men or women involved were running. They were almost all set lines, worked out in the rehearsal. Delivered with more or less acting skill.

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Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/02/2015 - 09:29 am.

    Game of Thrones?

    The only thing we learn from this is how adept the media can be at converting a high school debate exchange into a significant “moment” in politics. How can an exchange that’s completely devoid of substance possibly reveal anything substantial?

    I know these people get paid to talk about stuff, and I’m sure it’s difficult when you have so little material, but why not just admit you have no material and talk about something else? Two single digit back-runners have an sideshow exchange and we’re pretending this a “moment” of some kind? Talk about looking for tea leaves in the forest.

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 11/02/2015 - 09:39 am.

    I think we’ve all seen enough of a gifted wordsmith who could deliver a wonderful speech and have timely punch lines in debates (Obama) sitting across from Putin, Asad, the Iranians and getting schooled. The world is a different place than 8 yrs ago when the promise of getting out of the Mid East sounded good and the Arab Spring (which turned the area from bad to worse) was our out. We need leadership on the foreign front and JOBS here at home.

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 11/02/2015 - 02:08 pm.

      And then there are facts…

      In January of 1989, when Ronald Reagan left office and George Bush Sr took over, the U.S. unemployment rate was 5.40%.

      In January of 1993, when Bush Sr left office and Bill Clinton took over, the unemployment rate was 7.30%.

      In January, 2001, when Bill Clinton left office and George Bush Jr took over, the unemployment rate was 4.2%.

      In January of 2009, when Bush left office and Barack Obama took over, it was 7.8%.

      As of September, 2015, the U.S. unemployment rate was 5.1%


      In other words, the unemployment rate has gone up during the last two Republican administrations, and gone down under under the last two Democratic administrations.

      In Minnesota, the unemployment rate was 4.6% when Tim Pawlenty took office in January 2003, and it was 7.1% at the end of his term in 2010.

      And… “A look at other numbers shows that Minnesota became less prosperous during Pawlenty’s tenure, even when accounting for the national downturn. In 2002, Minnesota ranked eighth in the nation in per capita income. By 2009, the state had dropped to 14th in the nation.”


      “The unemployment rate in Minnesota peaked in June 2009 at 8.1%” (during Pawlenty’s second term) and, as of September 2015, it was 5.1%. AND Minnesota’s per capita income rating rose from 14th in 2009, to 7th in 2014 (one notch better than 2002).


      So, when it comes to your concern about jobs, you can think and say whatever you want, and, of course, you can keep voting for Republicans. But if you take a look at the facts you’ll see you’re either being fooled, or fooling yourself, when you think or say Republican legislators, governors, presidents, and policies create more jobs and prosperity. They don’t. The facts show the opposite happens. Anyone who is genuinely concerned about that stuff shouldn’t vote for them because, no matter how much or how hard they blame everyone and everything else for the messed up situations they create, the facts (not the yacks) clearly show they ALWAYS make things worse.

      Regarding, “We need leadership on the foreign front,” what do you mean by that, and, more importantly, what do you recommend, or what are Republicans recommending, in terms of specific actions that should be taken to provide that leadership?

      • Submitted by Bob Petersen on 11/09/2015 - 08:13 am.

        Facts are funny things

        Interesting when the labor participation rate has actually deteriorated during Obama’s presidency to the worst in over 50 years. Too many that have been without a job and stop looking or taken up their own line of work doesn’t get counted in the unemployment rate. Record number of people on welfare, food stamps, and total government giveaways.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/02/2015 - 03:04 pm.

      Suggest that you read

      about Uncle Remus and the Tar-baby.
      Let Putin get stuck in the Middle East;
      hopefully Obama will stick to his troop limits.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/02/2015 - 09:55 am.


    The exchange tells us nothing about how either one would behave and/or respond to criticism as president. It’s a “television moment,” which means it might get – is getting – far, far more attention than it reasonably should. Given the primacy of television over other political media with the general public, it might turn out to be important simply because various TV talking heads think or decide it’s important, but the original point – that it really tells the public nothing useful about either candidate – remains.

    Personally, I’m looking forward to the end result, if there is one, of Ted Cruz’ suggestion/criticism that moderators for the next Republican debate (or perhaps he meant all future GOP debates) “be Republicans,” presumably as opposed to the commie/pinko/evil left-wing moderators of the mainstream media they’ve had so far. Maybe Reince Priebus could be persuaded to serve as moderator. I’ve ignored these preliminary debates so far – a clown show is a clown show is a clown show – but I might tune in for that…

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/02/2015 - 10:16 am.

    Making news

    I tend to be alone in this, but I don’t think it’s a good idea for news organizations to make news, specifically in this case to sponsor debates. And the problems we are seeing are largely the result of that. Fairly or not, the news organizations are being criticized for seeking ratings rather than providing illuminating debates. That is a real conflict for them, making them easy targets and in general undermining the credibility of the process.

  5. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 11/02/2015 - 10:25 am.

    Why Can’t We Make These “Presidential Material” Issues

    completely explicit in a debate.

    How about questions such as these?

    Mr. Bush, Russia has just invaded Croatia, installed a new government and declared it a Socialist Republic. As president, what would you do?

    Mr. Rubio, China has just sunk a U.S. destroyer after it violated what it claims as “territorial waters” around the islands they’ve been creating in the South China sea. As president, what would you do?

    Mr. Trump, it has just been revealed that the Wall Street Investment Banks have all been lying to each other while selling each other worthless junk, again. Whether any of them is currently solvent is in serious question. The stock market has plunged 1,000 points over the past two days. As president, what would you do?

    Mr. Carson, a very infectious airborne plague of unknown origin is running rampant through major metropolitan areas of the world and killing about 30% of those who catch it. Cases have already been diagnosed in several East and West coast US cities. As president, what would you do?

    Ms. Fiorina, a hurricane of unprecedented scale and strength is approaching Florida and looks to cross into the Gulf of Mexico, strengthen, and strike somewhere along the Gulf Coast causing damage and destruction unequaled by any previous storm. As president, what would you do?

    Mr. Cruz, 11 interstate highway bridges have fallen in the past two weeks. Hundreds have been killed and traffic has been brought to a standstill in many places. Scientists have discovered that changes in the atmosphere are causing serious and rapid corrosion in the standard design of all similar bridges. Thousands will soon fail. As president, what would you do?

    Mr. Christie, the largest generation in U.S. history, the “baby boomers” born immediately after WWII, are beginning to retire. As they age, their legitimate need for health care, in home or nursing home care, Social Security payments and the like will be a serious drain on our Federal systems designed to meet those needs. How will you make sure that these systems are funded adequately to ensure that the “boomers” have what they need, and what they were promised throughout their working lives, to provide them with a reasonably comfortable retirement, and how will you structure those changes to ensure that, as the “boomers” leave this life behind, the systems their funding will readjust as they return to a more normal level of demand.

    A scenario and question could easily be developed for each candidate.

    Such questions would reveal which candidates would dive into a crisis and seek to do some good,..

    and which candidates would argue with and/or evade those questions, refuse to take them seriously, or revert to standard talking points,…

    thereby revealing that they would approach any crisis they faced in the same pathetically dismal way “W” dealt with Katrina.

    It would also reveal which candidates would tend to overreact to crises, and whose responses are either completely ignorant or unrealistic.

    In the end I, (and a LOT of other people, I suspect) are far less interested in what kind of actors and script reciters these candidates are,…

    and far MORE interested in whether they can think on their feet, face reality, and seek to bring the best possible outcomes out of the crises the next president is likely to face.

    I’m not even remotely convinced that any on the GOP side are up to the challenges the next president is likely to face.

    It would be helpful if their “debates” were conducted in ways to reveal that fact to the general public,…

    (or to reveal to me that I’m wrong about them).

    • Submitted by Tom Christensen on 11/02/2015 - 01:56 pm.

      I like your questions, however

      I think the problem is they won’t get within 100 feet of a hypothetical question as they are only as deep as their superficial talking points. All their campaigns are based on only talking to those who don’t pay attention.

    • Submitted by Robert Henderson on 11/02/2015 - 05:41 pm.

      and the answers are…

      I think they would all answer something like this…

      “Cut taxes and reduce the regulatory burden on the job creators, eliminate the EPA, defund Planned Parenthood, repeal the Affordable Care Act, get tough with Putin and China and bomb some more places in the Middle East.”

  6. Submitted by Mark Richardson on 11/02/2015 - 10:50 am.


    As I read the last paragraph, I got confused for a moment. The text reads:
    “If you think about the big moments in televised political debates of the past, I hope you will agree that they are all pretty stupid and have little to do with the actual qualities necessary to do the job for which that the men or women involved were running. They were almost all set lines, worked out in the rehearsal. Delivered with more or less acting skill.”
    I misread it thusly:
    “If you think about television pundit shows, I hope you will agree that they are all pretty stupid and have little to do with the actual qualities necessary… They were almost all set lines, worked out in the rehearsal. Delivered with more or less acting skill.”

  7. Submitted by Jim Million on 11/02/2015 - 12:17 pm.

    Video Arcade

    Debates? Hardly. Forums to show or develop TV skills, yes. Media techniques are key to public perceptions. Some have those skills, some do not. It’s all about 30-second OPTICS over substance, isn’t it? Style points count. These people do know they won’t be arguing with Putin in a room other than the Oval Office.

    For example: Jeb Bush may or may not have had a valid point in his clearly coached and (poorly) rehearsed shot at Rubio; however, JEB’s failure to perform that little sketch with any appearance of spontaneity or artistry revealed an image more of incompetent desperation than command. Does anyone believe that the French workweek came off the top of his head? Really…and those terribly stiff gestures…yikes! Do viewers now believe he would be effective addressing Putin indirectly through a TV speech to the American public?

    Good grief.

  8. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/02/2015 - 12:48 pm.

    Unexpected prescience

    Re: my earlier suggestion about Reince Priebus moderating a Republican debate, there’s this from Andy Borowitz:


  9. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/02/2015 - 01:28 pm.

    People who don’t vote republican

    especially people who don’t vote in the republican primaries, should have nothing to say about how these debates are run, and that especially includes members of the press.

    The purpose of these GOP debates is to enable republican primary voters to decide which candidate they want to represent the party in the general election. The moderator(s) should understand this and do their part to enable the candidates to make their case to the republican primary voters.

    Thus far, the network “journalist” moderators have used the occasion to attract viewers to gain ratings points to make their network lots of advertising money. In the process, they’ve asked insulting and irrelevant questions and tried to get one candidate to personally attack others on the stage. That format doesn’t allow the republican candidates to present their case to republican primary voters, the alleged reason for the debate.

    Some have suggested having Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly moderate the republican debates or members of the voting public who vote in the primaries. I strongly agree. I’d love to hear questions asked that intend to get to the fundamentals of economic, taxation, social and foreign policy philosophy to be able to compare and contrast their answers with their opponents and then to give each candidate an opportunity to make an opening and/or closing statement of at least 2 minutes in length.

    The democrats get this. Rachel Maddow will moderate the November 7th debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. No one batted an eye when that was announced. No one was shocked or outraged when Fox News offered to sponsor a debate and the DNC turned them down. We all know the Fox moderators would not ask the same questions as those asked by moderators who are sympathetic to the democratic cause. And that’s ok. That’s as it should be.

    There will be plenty of time during the general election debates to determine what the republican and democrat nominees would do in various situations as opposed to their opponent. But unless you’re voting in the primary, their answers at this point are irrelevant.

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 11/02/2015 - 04:15 pm.

      Not the boss of me

      “People who don’t vote republican should have nothing to say about how these debates are run, especially members of the press.”

      Not to go too far-afield on this, but ALL Americans own the airwaves (or the radio and television frequencies issued to individuals and companies via FCC broadcast licenses), that “the media” uses to communicate to all Americans, and when it comes to presidential campaigns (primary or otherwise), no one should be dictating ANYthing to those license holders or “the press.”

      If I owned, or was the head of, a broadcast network, and EITHER party came to me and laid a bunch of moderator and content “rules and regulations,” or “Republican voters only” control demands on my desk that were related to the debate they wanted to hold on “my network,” I’d tell them to jam it, take a hike, “Get outta here!”

      If Republicans OR Democrats want to call those (censorship) shots, they should create their own network, get their FCC license, and run their debates any way they see fit. But, until then, the idea that they can bull their way in and say, “This and that person can ask our candidates any questions on this list, but none of the questions on this list, and, under no circumstances, can they say, infer, or in any way broach any of these specific issues related to these specific candidates,” is way beyond absurd.

      And the idea that no one but Republican voters should have any say in the matter — especially the press — strikes me as at least a little bit arrogant.

      Or, put another way, speaking as one American “FCC-regulated frequencies shareholder” that wouldn’t vote Republican if paid to, I’d say, “That’s fine. But if I have no say how those frequencies are used, and the people that own and operate the networks that use them to do business have no say (unless they vote Republican), and you want the press banned from the process, don’t use those frequencies to beam your debates into American voter’s homes (whether they vote for Republicans, Democrats, or no one at all).”

      If Republicans don’t like the way the people that hold the FCC licenses run their Free Market businesses, Republicans should do the Free Market thing and take their business elsewhere: Rent a bunch of halls, hold them at fairgrounds or stadiums or public squares around the country. Do it however you want to, but if those are your conditions, you can keep your debates off the airwaves that belong to all Americans (not just the ones that vote Republican).

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 11/02/2015 - 05:06 pm.

        Air Waves and Goodbye Waves

        ‘no one should be dictating ANYthing to those license holders or “the press”. ‘

        Except sponsors, of course, who make waves all the time.

        And, so many high public officials, who often exclude certain topics from interviews.

        And, the Republicans, who may now be waving “goodbye” to NBC. [or not]

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/02/2015 - 06:06 pm.

        FCC Licenses

        are only required for broadcast networks. Fox, CNN, PMSNBC, etc., are cable news networks and don’t require FCC licenses. So there’s that free market thing working again.

    • Submitted by Thomas Eckhardt on 11/02/2015 - 07:28 pm.

      I agree with you, but only of the Republicans agree not to count the votes of any Democrats or independents who end up voting for the Republican candidate.

      The guys are running to be President of the United States of America. If they were running for President of the Republican Party that would be different.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/03/2015 - 05:45 am.

        What do you think of the idea

        of republicans voting in the democrat primary? If a republican wants to vote for the democrat in the general election, that’s one thing, but people of one party, or independents for that matter, shouldn’t have any say in who the candidate is for the opposing party. That’s why we have primaries and caucuses. People who don’t agree with that don’t understand the political party system.

        • Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 11/04/2015 - 04:06 pm.

          Fair enough. But exactly WHO is a Republican? Or, a Democrat for that matter. I am guessing that most of us are not formal members of a party.

  10. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/02/2015 - 02:15 pm.

    The purpose of these GOP debates is to enable republican primary voters to decide which candidate they want to represent the party in the general election.

    that’s the problem, you see. That may be the purpose some candidates and the party might have, but that isn’t necessarily the purpose of the networks.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/03/2015 - 08:59 am.

    I just think it’s funny…

    All these republican tough guys spend so much time whining about stuff. They’re all gonna be so so so tough on Putin, and then they run into some tough questions and moderators and they’re all a bunch of cry babies. It just shows us what happens when these people get outside of their echo chambers.

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