The Fall of Marco

The sun has set on Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign and he must now return to his average job in his average office and ponder what happened.  In the Age of Trump this is not an easy question to answer, as everything we thought we knew about politics is null and void.  But even in this topsy-turvy, oh-my-god-is-this-happening election season, Rubio failed to make good on some basic tenets of running a successful campaign.

For starters, despite his attempt to brand his youth as an asset, it was not.  His lack of record in the Senate gave him no accomplishments of any consequence to point to and his career in the Florida House hardly gave him requisite training in how to handle the intense pressure of the national media.  Being the rookie in the race led to countless unforced errors that routinely undermined his authority that he was ready to lead.  Finally, the emergence of Donald Trump and the unconventional campaign put the final nail in the coffin of the hopes of the GOP’s young rising star.

One of Marco Rubio’s favorite tag lines throughout his campaign was that the wasn’t going to “wait his turn” like the establishment wanted him to.  He said that politics shouldn’t be about electing someone because they had checked off items on a bureaucratic bucket list, but about electing someone who was right for the moment. And the current moment in 2016 required a young, hopeful, inspirational freshman senator who could unite warring political factions around the country.  Does this sound familiar?

It should, because Rubio’s party just spent seven years eviscerating a president for running a campaign based on that identical platform.  The Republican Party claims that part of the reason Obama has so royalty screwed America is because he was a freshman senator who abdicated his elected duties for campaign events in pursuit of higher office.

With that harsh message about electing an inexperienced symbol of change seared into their minds, the Republican electorate had a hard time buying what Rubio was selling when it came to his experience.

The positive aspect of not having a long list of political accomplishments to your name is that you are unhinged from the ball and chain of your recorded positions.  The negative part of being able to brand yourself is that if you brand yourself poorly, then not only do you have no record, but now also a poor reputation.

When Rubio first came to the Senate, he attempted to stake out a role as serious senator who could be the of the new conservative party.  He secured a spot on the revered Intelligence Committee where fellow senators remarked that he seemed to grasp concepts quickly and thoroughly.  Most notably though, he was a member of the now infamous Gang of Eight that worked to craft the 2013 comprehensive immigration bill.  

The part of the bill that ended up sinking it was the portion that granted a path to citizenship over 13 years to those currently here illegally.  As the Republican party caved to their base and veered sharply away from this compromise, Rubio got political cold feet and joined the stampede from the center.

Here is the problem with that shortsighted reversal.  Three years later as Rubio was fighting for his political livelihood, five states voted on March 15th whose voters all viewed “amnesty” favorably.  But by this point, the damage was done.  His monumental flip flop showed the voters that not only was he unsupportive of their favored policy, but that he didn’t have the backbone to support them when the going got tough.

For all of Ted Cruz’s faults – and oh are there many – he is steadfast in his convictions. He persists in his stances no matter how unpopular they are, even forcing a government shutdown in 2013 that temporarily damaged the reputation of his entire party.  Voters admire conviction, even when it is occasionally wrong, and many saw through Rubio’s Charmin-soft outer shell.

It wasn’t just Rubio’s long term positions that he failed to stay consistent on.  Throughout the campaign his stump speech and message seemed to change with the wind.  He started his campaign with a message of hope, preaching that America’s greatness could only grow.  As it became apparent that this was not year to sell hope, he shifted to a message about America’s “depleted military” and sagging economy. By contrast, John Kasich stuck to his message of positivity and look who is still in the race.

Later as Trump further pushed the campaign into third grade recess territory, Rubio decided that he too, needed to leave the classroom for the playground. For nearly two weeks he traded high minded policy arguments for punch lines about Trump’s fingers, hair, and well… other body parts.  

But he wasn’t done yet.  When that strategy remained in stuck in the mud, he apologized to the country and said he was embarrassed by his own remarks.  Rather than make him appear presidential, it made him look unprofessional and unprepared for the rigor of the national spotlight.

Being a public figure isn’t an easy task by any means, but running for president is a whole different ballgame.  In a piece in Esquire describing the infamous “Dean Scream,” Howard Dean candidly admitted that “the honest truth is that {he} wasn’t ready for prime-time.”  That being a Governor of a small state wasn’t the same as have every statement dissected with a fine toothed comb by every media outlet in the nation.

Rubio faced this same shock.  From his reaching for the water bottle during his rushed State of the Union response to his repetitive robot-like gaffe during a recent primary debate, Rubio clearly wasn’t ready for the constant, diamond producing pressure of a presidential campaign.  

All of these moments individually may not have been fatal, but combined they painted a picture of a young, overly ambitious politician who wasn’t ready for the national stage.  In presidential elections, image matters and many voters couldn’t couldn’t get over the image of Rubio as a candidate who was constantly trying to find his chi.

Sadly, even if Rubio were a polished candidate who had a solid set of positions, he still likely would have succumbed to the behemoth that is the Trump movement.  Trump was the worst possible candidate for someone like Rubio.  

Trump is brash and confident, Rubio is tepid and calculating.  Trump could care less what anyone thinks of him, Rubio only cares what others think of him.  Trump could sell water to a well – or steaks to an electronics store – and Rubio couldn’t even convince those outside of his hometown to vote for him.

Having already declared that he is retiring from the Senate at the end of this year and also closed the door on a run for governor, it is unclear what path Rubio plans to chart for himself at this juncture.  Alas, only one person can win the presidency and as he said it himself, he had a good season but didn’t win the Super Bowl.

Photo: Paul Sancya, AP

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Bernie’s Gift to Hillary

Hillary Clinton’s biggest vulnerability is undeniably her perceived untrustworthiness among voters.   But Bernie Sanders won’t talk about it.

Long before she had even announced her candidacy, Republicans had all but attempted to tar and feather Clinton over issues ranging from Benghazi to her email practices to whether or not she let her top aide take too much paid vacation.  The smear campaign has worked, as Clinton’s favorability numbers plummeted and the road to her previously assumed coronation has proven rocky.  However, Clinton’s current opponent, Bernie Sanders, refuses to pursue this line of attack.

I’d be tempted to say this is because primary opponents aim duke it out based on issues important to their voting base rather than personal attributes, but the Republican contest has proven that entirely false.  That race has become a sophomoric school yard rumble where the word “liar” has been used more frequently than “taxes.”

This past weekend, during a debate in Flint, Michigan, Sanders sharpened his attacks to a new level and repeatedly – and angrily – insisted Clinton let him finish speaking.  Despite the obviously increased level of animosity, Sanders never crossed into attacking Clinton’s character.  In fact, Sander’s most memorable line of the campaign so far has been declaring that the public was tired of hearing about her “damn emails.”

While a high-minded campaign around important issues might be refreshing to voters, Sanders is arguably costing himself votes by steering clear of what has been an incredibly effective attack on Clinton.  Polls show that when voters are asked if they trust each candidate, Sanders scores nearly 20 points higher than Clinton.  Most pollsters would identify that as a prime talking point to be exploited and produce positive gains for his campaign.  Yet still, Sanders won’t do it.

This hesitancy to attack Clinton on a personal level has been a godsend for her this spring.

Despite Sanders’ victories in a handful of primaries so far this year, Clinton is still an odds-on favorite to secure the nomination in the summer.  Despite the heated rhetoric, there won’t be any television ads this fall featuring fellow Democrats questioning whether she can be trusted.

By contrast think about what the Republicans will have to face.  It doesn’t matter who emerges from the Republican field, they have all said – and had said about them – incredibly nasty things about each others personalities, character, and even looks.  Why does Clinton need to run an ad calling Marco Rubio unprepared to lead when she can show Chris Christie saying it.  Why does she need to call Donald Trump a loose cannon when Jeb Bush and every other Republican has, too.  

The reality-tv-like nature of the Republican primary has spawned record levels of voter turnout and if this trend continues into the fall, Clinton is going to need Democrats to be equally as inspired to make it to their polling locations in support of her.  She has already seen lackluster enthusiasm levels and nothing would make that uphill climb steeper than to have attacks of untrustworthiness coming from within her own party.

After the Democratic convention in July, Clinton will have a whole host of things to thank Sanders for.  For one, he has made her a better candidate, forcing her to focus on issues that are important to the Democratic base that she may not have otherwise. But beyond that, she should thank him for not further stoking the flames behind the most damaging question voters have about Secretary Clinton: Can she be trusted?

 

Photo Credit: REUTERS/Brian C. Frank

America’s 2016 Nominee? Themselves.

American’s have decided to vote for themselves this year.  No really, they have.  In the swelling support of Donald Trump, voters have shown that they would rather elect someone who shares their flaws than a leader of the traditional presidential mold.

Nearly every candidate not named Trump has spent years carefully crafting their image.  Honest, hardworking, caring, decisive.  Even Ted Cruz, who tries mightily to be viewed as an outsider, has a finely tuned political brand years in the making.

Most people are far from perfect and have flaws that range from occasionally lying to moments of racism to selfishness and arrogance.  Trump is unabashedly all of these things and in an age where polished politicians have been cast as the enemy, this mirror recognition is sufficient.

Trump may be a liar, but so are most people.  A 2002 study by the University of Massachusetts found the 60% of people tell at least one lie in every conversation.  Some of Trump’s supporters undoubtedly see this personal quality reflected in his candidacy as a sign of normalcy.  Trump claims to not have heard Jake Tapper say “KKK,” and well, who hasn’t forgotten a project at work and told their boss they didn’t get the email.  It may not be right, but the common man does this every day.

A polished politician, on the other hand, doesn’t have this luxury.  They are elected to be shining pillars of personal conduct and ethical purity.  Ted Cruz recently saw his poll numbers take a dive after days of harsh media coverage surrounding ethically questionable statements and tactics by his campaign.  The attacks were so effective that he fired his communications director to try and repair his image.  Meanwhile, non-politician Trump won a majority of Super Tuesday primaries just days after claiming a bad earpiece prevented him from condemning the Ku Klux Klan.

More likely than not that was a bold faced lie.  As HBO’s John Oliver pointed out earlier this week, Trump’s difficulty in condemning David Duke hinted that he was either racist or pretending to be, neither of which is decent.  If it was the latter – and I suspect it was – it was an incredibly effective dog-whistle to many within his core constituency.

Across the south there are still those who wouldn’t identify themselves as racist, but will still sing David Allen Coe songs with plenty of gusto.  To them, Trump’s hesitation in rebuking the David Duke endorsement was a nod that he is like them, someone who is forced to mask their internal compass because it doesn’t mesh with the decency norms of today’s society.

Then there is the matter of Trump’s wealth.  Candidates in every past election cycle have been ridiculed for being out of touch with the common man due to their vast fortunes.  The difference is that each of them were trying to run away from their upscale lifestyles while Trump embraces it as emblematic of the success others could see if he is elected.

For example, in 2008 John McCain tried to shrug off his inability to remember how many houses he owned.  Meanwhile, Trump holds press conference in front of a plane with his name emblazoned on the fuselage.  

This works because what American doesn’t dream of jet-setting around the world in their own jet.  It’s the embodiment of the American dream that we yearn for from a young age.  To a blue collar worker, seeing someone of Trump’s wealth preach a doctrine of unapologetic winning is exciting and inspiring.

Trump doesn’t need voters to ascribe to all of his opinions.  Rather, he just relies on people who can say “Hey, I’ve been there too. I can relate.”  Have most Americans not at one point thought about the satisfaction gained from torturing those who planned 9/11?  You bet they have.  But actually doing so would be in stark contrast to how America operates.  

George Washington once said that we should treat our prisoners in a way that proves the moral superiority of the American cause.  That wisdom is precisely why we elect leaders who have the temperament to steer us away from the temptation of revenge.

Nearly all of Trump’s support can be seen through this lens.  There is a substantial bloc of Americans want to “take America back” and to them a wall along the southern border sounds glorious.  A true leader knows how damaging that is.

Trump isn’t campaigning on the platform of being a leader.  He is campaigning as a megaphone for every dark thought buried deep in America’s conscience.

Career politicians though, spend so much time trying to appear perfect that any chinks in their armor revealing those human flaws can prove fatal.  Someone like Trump has proved immune to these traditional poison pills because he has never pretended to be a polished politician.

Make no mistake about it, politician or common man, Donald Trump is no statesman. He is, however, a perfect patchwork of frustrated American personalities and that may just be all he needs.