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Rubio's clumsy case against Obama and 'change'

Don't miss the forest for the trees: when Marco Rubio repeated that talking point over and over, he was endorsing an idea from the crackpot fringe.
Presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) holds a town hall meeting in the Londonderry High School cafeteria Feb. 7, 2016 in Londonderry, N.H. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)
Presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) holds a town hall meeting in the Londonderry High School cafeteria Feb. 7, 2016 in Londonderry, N.H.
Marco Rubio's debate debacle Saturday night, whether it hurts his campaign or not, was one of the more cringe worthy moments in modern debate history. The Florida senator did the one thing a candidate should never do -- Rubio confirmed an unflattering caricature -- and he did so on a widely seen national television event at a key juncture in the campaign.
But just as important as the Floridian's panic-induced repetition was the point Rubio kept repeating, word for word: "Let's dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing. He is trying to change this country."
Today, the senator practically bragged about the source of his embarrassment. The New York Times reported:

"I'm going to say it again," Mr. Rubio said in front of a crowd of about 1,000 people who packed a high school cafeteria here, one of his largest New Hampshire audiences. "Barack Obama is the first president, at least in my lifetime, who wants to change the country. Change the country -- not fix it. Not fix its problems. He wants to make it a different kind of country."

It may seem like a strange thing for Rubio to whine about. In 1985, Ronald Reagan said he intended to "change America forever," and the Republican icon had some success on this front. Bill Clinton ran on a "change" platform, and he too delivered on a series of changes.
George W, Bush, for good or ill, changed the country. Barack Obama, love him or hate him, changed the country. People very rarely seek national office because they intend to leave things exactly as they are. On the contrary, would-be leaders seek powerful offices because they're not satisfied with the status quo.
Not to put too fine a point on this, but a President Rubio "wants to change the country," too -- by taking away families' health care benefits, ending efforts to combat climate change, turning back the clock on marriage equality, giving the wealthy a massive tax break the country can't afford, etc.
All of which leads to a rather basic question: why in the world is Rubio complaining so incessantly about President Obama being an agent of change? If you've misplaced your right-wing decoder ring, there's an actually an underappreciated answer to all of this.
Revisiting the transcript, take a look at the sentences that immediately follow Rubio's robotic, repetitious talking points: "Let'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. Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world. That's why he passed Obamacare and the stimulus and Dodd-Frank and the deal with Iran. It is a systematic effort to change America."
Moments later he added, "We are not facing a president that doesn't know what he's doing. He knows what he is doing. That's why he's done the things he's done. That's why we have a president that passed Obamacare and the stimulus. All this damage that he's done to America is deliberate."
Read that last sentence one more time: "All this damage that he's done to America is deliberate."
This will probably seem silly to most of the American mainstream, but Rubio not only rejects some of the president's most notable accomplishments -- bringing affordable health care to millions of families, rescuing the country from the Great Recession, adding new safeguards and layers of accountability to Wall Street, blocking Iran's access to a nuclear weapon -- the senator actually sees them as deliberate efforts to undermine the United States.
No, seriously. This isn't a joke. In Rubio's mind, the Recovery Act, which ended the recession, was "damaging" to the country. The Affordable Care Act, which cut the uninsured rate to a level unseen in modern history, is part of a "deliberate" campaign to sabotage America.
Salon's Simon Maloy explained today:

If you've listened to a lot of conservative radio (or watched just a few seconds of Glenn Beck) then you've probably come across this theme. Each AM dial screamer has his own variation on the "Barack Obama is deliberately trying to undermine the United States" theory.... They're all slightly different routes to the same destination: Obama is deliberately harming the country by targeting and destroying the things that make us uniquely "American." It's a dark, paranoid vision of the Obama presidency that sets up the twice-elected Democrat as a sort of supervillain whose policy achievements are rooted in malevolence. And here comes Marco Rubio, the emerging favorite of the Republican establishment, offering a very lightly sanitized version of this same lunatic message.

Quite right. In right-wing circles, it's not enough to believe Obama is simply wrong. These conservatives also somehow managed to convince themselves that the president, motivated by a deep-seated anti-American animus, is actually carrying out a campaign intended to undermine the United States, on purpose, from within the White House.
And while such an unhinged perspective may seem limited to crackpot fringe, Rubio was offering subtle support for this argument with his carefully scripted talking points, which he repeated on Saturday night. And then repeated again. And then again. And then once more with feeling.
The Washington Post's Paul Waldman characterized such nonsense as "positively insane," which seems more than fair under the circumstances.
Indeed, perhaps the only thing more alarming than Rubio getting stuck repeating the same phrase over and over again was the talking point itself -- which showed the senator taking an unfortunate dip into the fever swamps.