Marco Rubio, Please Call Dan Quayle

Carlo Allegri / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In honor of the just-begun new Chinese Year of the Monkey, and in keeping with the Chinese fondness for numbering discussions—the Three Represents of Jiang Zemin, the Four Comprehensives of Xi Jinping—here are some number-based assessments of last night’s ABC Republican debate. Please also see the Atlantic’s group liveblog from last night, anchored by David Graham; and Molly Ball’s post about the travails of Marco Rubio.

The One Opening Screwup

The jumble of candidates coming out through the tunnel, Big Game-style, was an appropriately weird start to a weird evening. At most live events I’ve been part of, including those the Atlantic puts on, someone from the production staff (sometimes me) is standing one inch out of camera range. That person has a hand on the shoulder of the guest about to be called on stage, and gives a gentle push and says “Go!” when the moment comes. Presumably ABC had such a handler at the off-camera end of the tunnel but not at the other end, to keep people moving onto the stage. Thus the strange Carson-Trump-Bush-Kasich pileup in the tunnel.

The Three Battling Governors

They all seemed to help themselves. John Kasich got plenty of time to make his points and present himself as “the positive one.” Chris Christie took on poor Marco Rubio and scored. Jeb Bush came as close to seeming at ease as he has in any of these sessions. They all look better than they did a day ago.

The Three Others Who Didn’t Lose Ground

Ted Cruz had his first human-seeming moment of the season, when talking about his half-sister who died of a drug overdose. Donald Trump was Donald Trump, no big swing up or down. Ben Carson was more engaged-seeming than in recent appearances, and gently but effectively pointed out the hole in Ted Cruz’s alibi for his “Carson is quitting” ruse before the Iowa caucuses.

Which Leaves the Special One. Marco Rubio’s robotic repetition of a couple-sentence riff from his stump speech was much worse in real time than it appears in this clip, which is bad enough on its own:

It was worse because in Rubio’s first three appearances on camera, all in the opening minutes of the debate, he said exactly the same thing, in a way you don’t associate with normal human discourse. When watching it I thought for a second that there must have been some broadcast glitch, skipping back to an already-aired segment. He couldn’t possibly be saying just those same words, with just the same gestures … could he?

  • This wasn’t Donald Trump, who always says some variant of “things are going to be great” or “let’s build a big, beautiful wall.”
  • This wasn’t any standard politician, showing that he is aware of a repetition by introducing it with, “Let me say it again...” or “I can’t stress this often enough...”
  • This wasn’t “message discipline” in which, Bernie Sanders-style, you bring any answer back to the big, main theme you want to stress.

This was flat-out panic and mental paralysis. (And I see that the Atlantic’s David Frum has made the same point, to devastating effect.) The central problem was that Rubio used an odd-sounding construction that might come out of a real person’s mouth once but that no one would naturally repeat. It was:

Let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing.

“Dispel with”? OK, any of us might say that one time. But “dispel with this fiction,” back to back to back, with exactly the same emphases and hand gestures? That’s brain freeze. As Frum put it:

Now the Four Immortals Become Five

There is a new entry on the list of memorable self-inflicted debate disasters:

  1. Gerald Ford, 1976: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be.”
  2. Dan Quayle, 1988: Being on the receiving end of Lloyd Bentsen’s withering  “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” This counts as self-inflicted both because Quayle introduced the comparison to Kennedy, thus setting up Bentsen’s comeback; and because he allowed himself to look so shocked and deflated by what Bentsen said.
  3. James Bond Stockdale, 1992: “Who am I? Why am I here?” Go look it up.
  4. Rick Perry, 2011: “Oops.” This was when listing the three federal departments he wanted to eliminate: One, two, and … “I can’t, sorry. Oops.”
    And now —
  5. Marco Rubio, 2016: “Let’s dispel with this fiction.”

Will this make a real difference in Rubio’s prospects? Who knows. I think it does very badly damage the idea that he is “quick on his feet” or “a good debater.” And we should be clear that debate screw-ups don’t necessarily say anything about underlying political and personal merit. Admiral James Bond Stockdale was a genuine national hero. Dan Quayle was and is a far more substantive, knowledgeable figure than the “potatoe” caricature of his vice-presidency implied. (I say this based on interviewing him several times.) Gerald Ford performed well in difficult and unexpected circumstances—and gave us the ever-useful line, “Our long national nightmare is over.” Etc.

So Marco Rubio could well surmount this disastrous performance. A young politician named Bill Clinton was the butt of nationwide ridicule after his interminable speech at the Democratic convention in 1988, and look where he ended up four years later. Conceivably by the end of this year, a Republican-nominee Rubio, or even a President Rubio, could be looking back wryly on this episode, as a President Bill Clinton could laugh about his 1988 speech. But right now this looks very bad.