About a dozen Republican presidential hopefuls appeared in South Carolina over the weekend at the "Freedom Summit," a showcase sponsored by Citizens United, and most of the rhetoric was consistent with expectations. But as msnbc's Benjy Sarlin reported, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) delivered one line that stood out.
Rubio told the audience he would model his approach to terrorism on Liam Neeson's catchphrase in the film "Taken": "We will look for you, we will find you and we will kill you."
If you haven't seen the movie, here's a handy clip of Neeson delivering the line.
This wasn't some offhand comment that the far-right senator mentioned in an interview; this was in the prepared text. Indeed, Rubio's campaign operation followed up on the speech by celebrating the line on social media. It's also worth appreciating the efficacy of the rhetoric -- it was met, by some accounts, with "thunderous applause."
I should note for context that the Florida Republican didn't just take the line and present it as his own -- he's not Rand Paul -- but rather, he credited the film directly. "On our strategy on global jihadists and terrorists, I refer them to the movie Taken," Rubio said on Saturday. "Have you seen the movie Taken? Liam Neeson. He had a line, and this is what our strategy should be: 'We will look for you, we will find you, and we will kill you.'"
The attribution was nice, but it didn't negate the underlying problem.
After 9/11, it wasn't unusual in to hear prominent conservative officials recycle an old Reagan-era line to describe their ideal approach to national security: "We win, they lose." It was over-simplistic in a tragic sort of way -- rah-rah rhetoric may have been emotionally satisfying, but it was also hollow and meaningless.
Of course we want to see the U.S. win and our enemies lose, but it's the responsibility of policymakers to approach these complex issues with some maturity and an appreciation for detail. How do we win? What does a win look like, exactly? What is the best way to ensure our foes' defeat? At what cost?
The problem with Rubio using a movie catchphrase as the basis for a national-security vision is that it's every bit as superficial. In fact, it's arguably worse by tying these life-and-death issues to pop culture.
"We will look for you, we will find you, and we will kill you"? And how is that different from what we're doing now? Where does Rubio intend to look that we're not already looking? After Rubio finds the bad guys, how exactly does he intend to kill them? Are there limits? If so, what?
These are serious issues, not questions that can be answered with bravado and chest-thumping.
I imagine Rubio's supporters will suggest the senator wasn't actually articulating a serious thought, so much as he was just throwing out some red meat at a partisan event. A speech isn't a white paper, and rhetoric shouldn't be mistaken for his more serious, policy-focused thought.
It would be a more compelling defense if the Florida senator could actually point to serious, policy-focused thought -- instead of persistent confusion about foreign policy. This is, after all, supposed to be Rubio's signature issue, though in recent months, Florida's young junior senator has repeatedly struggled with the basics of international affairs.
These problems haven't improved since the GOP senator launched his presidential campaign. Just a few weeks ago, Rubio insisted, "We are the only nation that is not modernizing its nuclear weapons," a claim that's not even close to being true.
If the Republican White House hopeful routinely demonstrated genuine expertise on international affairs, it'd be easier to overlook some lazy rhetorical flourishes. But given how frequently Rubio is confused about national security, when he uses a movie catchphrase to dumb down an important issue, it's a reminder that this is one national candidate who clearly needs a new signature issue.