When pundits praise Marco Rubio's debate performances -- and good lord do they gush -- the acclaim generally focuses less on what the senator has said and more on how he said it. Multi-candidate debates, after all, have become political theater, and the participants are seen less as would-be presidents and more as performers, evaluated on their ability to hit their marks, remember their script, and deliver their lines.
And no matter what you think of Rubio's record or vision, the Floridian understands these rules very well. More so than any of his rivals, the first-term senator can hear a question, remember the relevant portion of his stump speech, and regurgitate the pertinent soundbite as if he'd spent a week practicing in front of a mirror.
Are the talking points true? Does his agenda have substantive merit? Rubio knows these are pesky details that are generally overlooked, so he, like the pundits who fawn over him, doesn't seem to care.
But once in a great while, a reporter notices the senator's robotic qualities and is less impressed than his media brethren. For example, Erik Eisele, a reporter for the Conway Daily Sun in New Hampshire, spent some time with Rubio last week, and wrote soon after:
We had roughly 20 minutes with him on Monday, and in that time he talked about ISIS, the economy, his political record and his background. But it was like watching a computer algorithm designed to cover talking points. He said a lot, but at the same time said nothing. It was like someone wound him up, pointed him towards the doors and pushed play. If there was a human side to senator, a soul, it didn't come across through. That might sound like harsh critique, but in essence that is the point of the New Hampshire primary, to test candidates in a retail politics setting.
At least in this case, it was a test the young senator failed.
In fairness, it's worth emphasizing that Eisele also described Rubio as "smart" -- a compliment other observers may take issue with -- and knowledgeable. It'd be unfair to characterize the entire column as an anti-Rubio diatribe, since it clearly was not.
Eisele's broader point, however, seemed to focus on Rubio being overly polished, overly scripted, and overly interested in the "expectation of perfection."
Vox's Andrew Prokop added, "This is something national political reporters who've followed Rubio have long observed. When you see him deliver a speech, he's great -- charismatic, fluid, winning. But he's much better at hitting a previously prepared set of points than he is at striking a more conversational, informal tone."
I think that's true, but we can also take the next step and think about this in a governing context. Rubio has proven that when his staff hands him a script to memorize, he'll do it as well as any 2016 candidate, if not better. But if you watch his debate performances or his town-hall appearances closely, you'll notice that Rubio often stumbles when he's asked to think on his feet.
Throw him a curve ball -- in other words, ask him to say something he hasn't already memorized -- and suddenly the senator loses his footing. It's not a flattering quality in someone trying to become the leader of the free world.
To borrow a phrase, it's like someone winds him up, points him towards the doors and pushes play, but if there's a glitch in software, Rubio seems lost.
I keep seeing analyses praising the senator as a political "natural." I find this wholly unpersuasive. Candidates like Chris Christie and even Rick Santorum have exceptional, raw political skills, which serve them well in town-hall settings and interviews. Rubio, on the other hand, has the appearance of these skills, which isn't quite the same thing.
To use Erik Eisele's metaphor, it's the difference between intelligence and artificial intelligence.