Last night, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) got cottonmouthed, wiped and licked his lips and finally interrupted his delivery of the GOP response to the State of the Union to bend over and drink some water. By now, you've read someone explaining why this proves Rubio is not presidential material. Or is. Whatever.
Rubio looked goofy. It was funny. Looking goofy isn't really a big deal, though. Liberals spent the last decade cheering the elfin Dennis Kucinich, while conservatives embraced Texas patriot-leprechaun Ron Paul. The goofiest-looking motherfucker in American history was Abraham Lincoln. The guy was made out of seven feet of beard, bones, and hat blocking. Goofiness is a small hurdle for people with ideas. Rubio's speech proved that he doesn't have any.
This was supposed to be Rubio's coming out party. Beltway handicapping figures that Rubio stands a good shot in 2016, so this was a moment for him to evoke big ideas and inspire feelings. He was potentially enough of a savior for the Republican Party that he felt compelled to deny it:
Two more denials and he could worry less about the Jesus comparisons and more about Caesar.
Rubio needed this speech to live up to the story spun about him, but the "chosen one" narrative has always obscured a weird story. Rubio's ascent to the Senate wasn't so much a matter of destiny as it was a series of lucky breaks. He won in a year of depressed voter turnout. He faced a Democratic opponent, Kendrick Meek, who was, at best, probably the fourth choice of the state Democratic Party (after Alex Sink, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and a handful of third-stringers). Then there was the independent candidate, Charlie Crist, who bowed out of the GOP primary after Rubio posed a strong challenge.
Crist kneecapped himself among Republicans by supporting Obama's 2009 stimulus bill at the moment Florida most needed it but also at the moment that paranoia about Obama was at its zenith. For whatever reason—that he's black, a Democrat, a Yankee—Obama was anathema, and Crist did a deal with him. It didn't matter that Crist was still the state's chief executive and that Obama was someone sitting in Washington. Florida's current governor spent more time running for the office in 2010 against Obama than against Democratic candidate Alex Sink. It didn't matter that it didn't make sense.
Into this mess strode Rubio, first as Crist's primary opponent and then as the GOP nominee. And from the moment it was officially a three-way race between Crist, Rubio, and Meek, plenty of Florida wonks assumed Crist was doomed. Lefties stung by Crist's crippling property tax cuts (Florida has no income tax) bore him no love, and the deal with Obama was a final shove rightward for conservatives. The Tea Party gathered around Rubio, and he was only too happy to smile and pretend to not be scared shitless by people carrying around papier-mâché TREES OF LIBERTY soaked with the POSTER PAINT OF TYRANTS.
Rubio got lucky in other ways. Despite being Speaker of the Florida House when it was among the most corrupt state governments in America, despite thousands of dollars of potentially misused campaign funds being paid out to his family, despite abusing state GOP credit cards, despite being best buddies with a man accused of bribery and misuse of funds, and despite being the sort of "fiscal restraint" wizard who defaulted on a mortgage during the campaign, nothing touched him. No one was paying attention to Kendrick Meek, and the corruption investigation into former Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer overshadowed any interest in Rubio's potential sins with its "Borgia popes" levels of excess. (The Greer saga was still going on as of Tuesday.)
So when Rubio's speech started to falter last night, it was easy for people who follow Florida politics to shrug and say, "What did you expect?" The destiny storyline was always bullshit. Rubio is a career hack who won a deeply paranoid election against two guys who couldn't win, in a state so fucked up that almost no sub-Greer level of venality would be broadly objectionable. And after you strip away the investigations, there's not much left to the man. Rubio's always been described as a kind of visionary or idealist about the party, someone who gets a lumpy throat thinking about America. You can even read a book he wrote sort of on the subject, 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future, which he crowdsourced by conducting town halls ("Idearaisers") around the state. It's atrocious, but more to the point, it's a huge collection of generic GOP boilerplate, vague aspirations, and piddly shit. State budget amendments and energy-based tax incentives! Florida should have, like, a really good university! Let's make it hard for sex offenders to nab kids on MySpace!
All that visionary stuff thrown his way mostly boils down to his way of sounding deeply moved when saying keywords like "freedom" and "America." You saw it last night, where Rubio almost instantly came out of the gate with glistening eyes, already overwhelmed. If you ever saw a Prose Interpretation in a high school forensics tournament, you know exactly what it sounds like: that one girl who always put on a southern accent and read that story about speaking to the flowers like they were her dead daddy and asking, "D'yuh still luv me daddeh? D'yuh still luv Amerca? Sing to me, daddeh, through thuh peregrinatin' cry of that Cooper's Hawk."
It went on in this leadenly tacky way for 2,600 words. Rubio opened by tying the desire of the impoverished to immigrate to America with anti-abortion sentiment, claiming that "America is exceptional because we believe that every life, at every stage, is precious, and that everyone everywhere has a God-given right to go as far as their talents and hard work will take them." America is different from another nations, because our economic engine is driven by creating opportunity every time we de-fund access to birth control.
Most of it could have been 2012 campaign boilerplate. We must lower the farcically loophole-ridden corporate tax rate. Obama hates rich people, and taxing rich people will hurt the middle class more than cutting middle-class services and raising middle-class taxes would, so let's do that instead. Obamacare kills businesses. Obama will destroy Medicare and Social Security. All this could have come from Googling anything Paul Ryan has said in the last nine months. Rubio claimed that Obama "believes [free enterprise is] the cause of our problems," the sort of reductively hacky portrayal of Obama's attitude toward the 2007-8 financial crisis that Ryan was selling. America needs middle class jobs but not regulation, despite the fact that working in regulation is a solidly middle class job. In fact, a great deal of government work is. These are phantom jobs. They don't count, because Marcopaul Ryanubio looked sternly at them and said, "Nuh-uh."
But the real money shot of the night—aside from that silliness about a water bottle—was Rubio declaring, "More government isn't going to help you get ahead. It's going to hold you back. More government isn't going to create more opportunities. It's going to limit them." Minutes later Rubio sang the praises of the federal financial aid that sent him to college, and the Medicare that "provided [his] father the care he needed to battle cancer and ultimately die with dignity. And it pays for the care [his] mother receives now." Okay!
The bottled water moment offered the D.C. commentariat the worst kind of low-hanging fruit, yielding a ton of easy jokes and no actual thinking. "GAFFE BAD," screamed Beltway Twitter, before stalking off on the unbent Frankenstein legs of a creature that just took a lightning bolt to the head. For a political class demanding substance instead of shallow observation, it giddily embraced the latter, even nonsensically. Leaving aside that this was Rubio's big test, his big moment, the unofficial kickoff to his 2016, the man got cottonmouth—big deal. If you insist on hammering him on the basis of "optics," maybe focus on the fact that he spent 10 minutes reading a recycled 2012 Paul Ryan stump speech while threatening to weep at America until it rescued itself.
[Source image via Getty]