Is Marco Rubio Capable of More Than Bromides?

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His smoothly delivered State of the Union response showed his major weakness as a speaker: the staleness of his rhetoric.



People say Marco Rubio is a good speaker. I see why they say it. He's warm. Polished enough. He has a nice smile. He exudes what seems like earnestness. If Arrested Development's Lucille 2 had to take a GOP presidential contender as her escort to a charity auction at the Balboa Bay Club, Rubio is the one she'd invite.

But I can hardly stand to hear him speak.

I'm a more consistent proponent of free-market policies than he is, I enjoy listening to old Ronald Reagan speeches, and I think government is too big. But listening to Rubio talk about all that?

It makes me feel like ... argh, it's hard to explain.

Do you know the feeling of hearing a song you like, but quickly realizing it's Muzak? Can you imagine being stuck on an island with a favorite novel, but the Cliffs Notes version? What if someone asked you to close your eyes and imagine how a fresh strawberry tastes, and then put a Jolly Rancher on your tongue? Listening to Rubio makes me feel like those things happened.

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Here's my imagined version of how his speeches are written: Milton Friedman's Free to Choose is condensed into a Reader's Digest article; that article is summarized in a standardized test for fifth graders with all the words above their reading level replaced; the students are asked to highlight the most important passages on their test sheet; those passages are copied onto note cards and sent to Florida, where they are focus-grouped on conservative octogenarians; the cards that test as most "familiar" are sent to the Rubio communications shop in D.C. and mashed up with whatever Ronald Reagan lines are on BrainyQuote.com.

Voila! A speech.

That's what it feels like as I listen. What Rubio does best is movement-conservative boilerplate, so that's mostly what he does, but he doesn't make any effort to freshen up the ideas, or even to freshen up the rhetoric he uses to express the ideas. When he starts talking, it's like when the Dave Matthews Band song comes on, the one you liked the very first time you heard it 15 years ago, but then the guy across the hall played it on repeat for all of sophomore year, and now when the lyrics play you can't even conceive of them as words with a meaning.

Crash into me.

More government isn't going to help you get ahead. It's going to hold you back.

Remember how Bill Clinton's DNC speech outclassed every speaker at the RNC? His ability to explain relatively complicated concepts to a general audience without losing or boring them?

I don't think Rubio has that in him.

Oh, if you're already very familiar with the idea he's dumbing down you don't notice as much, because when hearing the Muzak you unconsciously supply what's missing in your head, but for folks who aren't already sold on Reaganesque-ism, and are now presented with a copy of a copy of a copy?

Our strength has never come from the White House or the Capitol. It's always come from our people. A people united by the American idea that, if you have a dream and you are willing to work hard, nothing should be impossible.

I mean, I agree with all of that. But isn't there a way to express it that doesn't sound so cliched and stale?

This quality I've described isn't unique to Rubio. At the RNC and the DNC last year, a lot of the lesser speakers annoyed me with their boilerplate. But for some reason, it bothers me more when I listen to Rubio than anyone else. It's like how bad acting from Keanu Reeves somehow seems especially bad. Or maybe it's that Rubio is so good at parts of public speaking, so the parts he is bad at seem glaring in juxtaposition? I can't say for sure. Does anyone else feel this way?

Maybe he's like the Beatles. We're just getting to know him, and he'll reveal unexpected depth with time. But I think he's like the Monkees, if their television show had aired in the mid-1990s instead.

Lots of smart people disagree. We'll see what happens.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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