It’s not how many times Rubio said it, it’s what he said.
By now, if you’ve paid any attention at all to Saturday night’s Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire, you know that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s usually nimble instincts for how to present himself seriously slipped a cog. He kept giving the same speech over and over, even after Chris Christie, his chief tormentor of the evening, had described him as someone whose response on any issue is to deliver “the memorized 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him.”
It’s true that over the course of the evening, Rubio launched into a particular pitch four, five or six times, depending on how you count them. Two or three of the renditions were so close to identical — even to the repetition of a particular grammatical error — that it almost seemed like one of those scenes from a sci-fi movie where you find out that one of the characters that you thought was a human is actually an android and that one of its wires has come loose. Here are the two iterations that illustrate that best:
“And 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. Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world.
“That’s why he passed Obamacare and the stimulus and Dodd-Frank and the deal with Iran. It is a systematic effort to change America. When I’m president of the United States, 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 with what they deserve: the single greatest nation in the history of the world.”
“But I would add this. Let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He is trying to change this country. He wants America to become more like the rest of the world. We don’t want to be like the rest of the world, we want to be the United States of America. And when I’m elected president, this will become once again, the single greatest nation in the history of the world, not the disaster Barack Obama has imposed upon us.”
The grammatical error to which I alluded above is this: You can “dispense with” a fiction, but you don’t “dispel with” a fiction. You just “dispel” it. The identical nature of both the solecism and the whole passage seems to make clear that we are dealing with someone who is able to memorize a paragraph, but not to remember that he has already said it.
This is what passes for, and will be remembered as, a classic “gaffe” in debate history. Kind of like when Gov. Rick Perry couldn’t remember the cabinet departments he proposed to abolish or when Gerald Ford “freed Poland.” Personally, I think gaffes are highly overrated. (Especially the one that unfairly turned Admiral James Stockdale into a laughingstock for saying into the camera: “Who am I? Why am I here?”)
I think the gaffe watch is usually stupid, and usually cruel. But it will hurt Rubio, especially, in this case because it will plant a seed in the public’s mind that whenever he delivers a sound bite, he is reciting a 25-second speech that his advisers gave him.
I think Rubio is smart and a gifted politician. What I hated was not the repetition but the substance of his sound bite. Try taking it seriously. Another of the iterations went like this (emphasis added at the end):
“We are not facing a president that doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows what he is doing. That’s why he’s done the things he’s done. That’s why we have a president that passed Obamacare and the stimulus. All this damage that he’s done to America is deliberate.”
Wow. It’s not enough to disagree with the wisdom of every major law Obama has signed (Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, the stimulus). Rubio’s entitled to that, although I’m unaware of the alternative programs Rubio favored at the time to deal with the same problems or crises.
It’s not enough to accuse Obama of the hideous crime of wanting to “change this country.” (Rubio, presumably wants to change it too, or does he propose to repeal everything that’s happened since 2009, when the nation was perfect, and then declare all change ended?)
It’s not enough to disagree with Obama’s view that the changes he implemented did more good than harm. It’s not enough to disregard the reasonably well-known fact that when Obama was inaugurated the country was in various versions of free-fall — economically and in our project to make the Mideast a happier, more peaceful and democratic place — that occurred under the watch of our last Republican president.
In the iteration just above, Rubio accuses Obama being the agent of a “deliberate” campaign to “damage” America.
He needs to retract that and apologize, not for making himself look dotty, daft and deranged by how many times he said it, but for saying it at all. If we take it seriously, it is an accusation of treason.
OK, maybe that’s a little over the top. I know it’s rude to hold someone to the plain meaning of their words, although Rubio seems to be, in general, pretty good with words. Let’s take a step back and try to understand what Rubio hoped to accomplish.
It seems clear to me that he was trying to tap into the concept of American exceptionalism, a concept that I consider arrogant and a meaningless self-congratulation wedded to self-deception.
Of course America is exceptional, in the sense that some of its characteristics are unique, but the same could be said of any nation, no two of which are identical. Of course America is not just any nation. It’s big, powerful, rich and its emergence surely deserves significant mention in the history of democracy.
I assume that in the mind or the words of someone like Rubio, the term includes the foggy notion that the United States is exceptionally unselfish and runs around the world toppling dictators, freeing the oppressed, bestowing democracy, etc., etc. — a much more arguable generalization.
The other thing I get from the word “exceptionalism” is that, because its motives are so pure and universally understood to be so, America is an exception to the rules and norms that govern the behavior of less exceptional nations.
To take it the next level, especially in context of Rubio’s rant, I take “exceptionalism” to refer to the idea that the United States has a moral right to go anywhere, bomb, invade and overthrow because the right-thinking people of the world understand that we do it for the benefit of those we bomb, to liberate those of them that we don’t (“collaterally”) kill and bring them the blessings of democracy and capitalism.
If any other country behaved that way (without U.S. backing) we would denounce them. Yes, there are rules against that. But those rules don’t apply to us because of our exceptionalism.
I can’t quite believe I actually wrote the paragraphs just above, but I believe them strongly, and I believe that Obama has tried to dial the American imperialism — excuse me, I meant “exceptionalism” — down a couple of notches. And that is what Rubio means when he accuses Obama of “trying to change this country. He wants America to become more like the rest of the world. We don’t want to be like the rest of the world, we want to be the United States of America.”
Here’s the Washington Post’s annotated transcript of the debate.