Everything appeared to be falling into place. Marco Rubio’s standing in the polls was on the upswing. Donors were rushing to the senator’s corner, as were some of his former presidential rivals and Capitol Hill colleagues, pushing his endorsement totals to unrivaled heights.
Prediction markets showed Rubio as a prohibitive frontrunner. The senator’s staff somehow convinced the media to pretend Rubio won Iowa, despite his third-place finish, and his lock on the GOP nomination was starting to look inevitable.
All the Floridian had to do was turn in another strong debate performance – pundits, as a matter of course, declare Rubio the winner of every debate, sometimes without regard for merit – and the Rubio Bandwagon could continue without interference.
It was the debate debacle that launched a thousand memes. The Marcobot Moment. The Marco Malfunction. Rubot. Marcosoft. RubiOS. Marco Roboto.
In the unlikely event you’re just learning about this story, Rubio struggled badly in Saturday night’s debate in New Hampshire, getting caught panicking and using the same phrase repeatedly:
“[L]et’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.”
Under pressure, Rubio repeated this phrase soon after, almost word for word. Then he said it again. And then again. If you heard it was bad, but haven’t seen the video, take a moment to watch it – because the breakdown was even worse than it sounds.
The larger question now is whether, and how much, it’ll matter.
The obvious problem for Rubio is that he identified one of the potent lines of attack against him – he’s an overly scripted, unprepared rookie who can’t think on his feet and can’t say anything beyond the memorized talking points some handler told him to repeat – and then proved those criticisms true.
It was as if Chris Christie put a rake on the stage, only to have Rubio step on it – four times.
Making matters slightly worse, Rubio got stuck in response to pressure he must have known was coming.
It also doesn’t help that “Obama knows exactly what he’s doing” isn’t a great GOP talking point. (And I’m pretty sure Rubio repeated the phrase “dispel with” when he was trying to say “dispense with.” Being a talking-point machine is an unappealing quality, and he’s not even especially good at it.)
But there’s another angle to this that’s easy to overlook: this is the first time in the 2016 cycle that Rubio has made himself the target of media ridicule. Pundits, reporters, and news organizations that have gone to almost comical lengths in recent months to boost the senator suddenly realized Rubio may not be the hyper-talented superstar they made him out to be.
At the worst possible moment, when the senator needed to step up with a clutch performance, he “choked” – a word more than one news outlet included in headlines yesterday morning. Many compared it to Rick Perry’s epic memory lapse; others equated Rubio’s performance with Dan Quayle’s troubles in 1988.
It’s entirely possible Republican voters won’t care. Perhaps the breakdown in Rubio’s algorithm will enter the panoply of Most Cringe Worthy Debate Moments Ever, but his march towards the nomination will continue apace. When the media gushed over Rubio’s good debate performances, he didn’t get much of a bump; it’s entirely possible the damage from this debate fiasco will be limited.
But there’s no denying the fact that Rubio has undermined confidence in his abilities as a candidate, raising legitimate questions about his preparedness, his competence, and his ability to hold the world’s most powerful office.
New Hampshire Republicans were poised to make Rubio the clear, largely uncontested “establishment” candidate in the GOP field. If his debate performance makes this less likely, it has the potential to be one of the year’s most memorable and important developments.