Rubio's British Doppelganger: Ed Miliband

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

Marco Rubio’s “robotic” performance during Saturday night’s Republican debate was bad, yes. But it wasn’t unprecedented.

To recap, when Chris Christie accused Rubio of just repeating talking points, Rubio quickly repeated a talking point. And then again. And again. A gleeful Chris Christie offered color commentary: “There it is, the memorized 25-second speech.”

Rubio’s repetitions—especially when edited together into a greatest-hits package—are eerily reminiscent of one of my favorite political videos. (David noticed the parallel too.) Here is then-British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband in 2011:

What both Rubio and Miliband are demonstrating here is a sort of foolish savvy: It’s the wisdom of the politician (and his advisers) who knows that it’s important to make sure you know what you’re saying and to stay on message, but doesn’t realize how bad it looks to seem inflexible and programmed. Miliband’s line in this clip isn’t bad the first time, if a little drab, and if the BBC had only played the soundbite, he might have come across well. But watch him deliver reassembled versions of exactly the same answer over and over again and he starts to appear either incapable of responding to facts or, worse, evasive and disingenuous.

The same goes for Rubio. His Obama line—“Let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing”—is perhaps too clever, but it’s not awful. The problem came when he was unable to stray from the line, to either rephrase it or turn back Christie’s attacks with a novel response.

The joke since Saturday has been that Rubio was “robotic,” launching several portmanteaus involving his name, none of them good. But of course it’s not being robotic that’s really the problem. The issue is the impression that a politician who sticks this close to message is evasive and can’t think on his feet in the high-pressure, split-second decisions a nation’s leader is required to make.

Miliband represents a cautionary lesson for Rubio in the dangers of coming across as too scripted. Both are young, polished, handsome (okay, opinions differ about Miliband, to be fair) politicians who presented themselves as the way to bring their somewhat creaky parties into the future and connect with younger voters. Rubio and Miliband even both love football. But Miliband ended up seeming wooden and weird during the 2015 U.K. elections, Labour squandered a polling lead, and David Cameron held on to 10 Downing Street. Miliband’s bright political feature was gone faster than you can eat a bacon sandwich.

After the defeat, Miliband was replaced as party leader as a cranky, older outsider with extreme views. But don’t worry—that could never happen here.