Politics & Policy

‘Canned’ Debate Performances Are a Problem Only for Pundits Who’ve Heard It All Before

Marco Rubio speaks during the GOP presidential debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, November 10, 2015. (Scott Olson/Getty)

In the course of reading through this morning’s post-debate analysis, I’ve seen a number of journalists complaining that the candidates at times sounded “canned.” Variously, this accusation has been leveled at Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie. Most of all, though, it has been aimed at Marco Rubio, who, polls notwithstanding, now seems to be considered the most likely eventual nominee.

As it happens, I think there is something to this critique. Time and again last night, it seemed as if Rubio was drawing from a limited bank of messages, statistics, stories, and examples, and perhaps even repeating chunks of his stump speech verbatim. In this endeavor, he was frequently helped by a moderating team that seemed almost comically determined to tee him up for a series of home runs. By far the worst moment in the debate came when Maria Bartiromo elected to shut down a conversation on immigration to which Rubio had yet to contribute, and to ask, in effect, whether Rubio would like to talk about how much younger he is than Hillary Clinton. Thrilled, Rubio obliged by launching into his usual pitch, albeit not quite as eloquently as usual. (For my money, this was his worst debate thus far.) Thus was a point of real contention swept away in favor of platitude.

#share#As someone who follows politics closely, I understand why this was irritating. Wonks, journalists, and political spectators want detail, not rhetoric; policy information, not biography; minutiae, not broad brushstrokes. As such, when they hear that Republicans have an “exciting prospect,” they instinctively expect that he will speak like Milton Friedman at all times. But — and herein lies the rub — they forget that most people watching do not, at least not yet. This is not, note, because the average voter is stupid or lazy or incapable of following complexity, but because, unlike us, they haven’t heard all of this stuff 10,000 times before. As any good communicator knows, public figures typically have to say the same thing over and over and over again in order to get people to hear their message just once. Sure, avid readers of National Review or The New Republic know that Rubio is of Cuban origin; that his parents were poor; that he is hawkish on foreign policy and dovish on immigration; that he is tempted by reform conservatism; that he opposes Obamacare and raising the minimum wage. But most debate viewers aren’t avid readers of National Review or The New Republic. Most debate viewers are normal, and as such don’t argue about current affairs all day long. Mercifully, most people have more important things to do than bicker about the latest headlines in The Hill.

Odd as it may seem to the editors of the New York Times, Marco Rubio’s goal last night was to ensure that the casual observer was left with a good general impression of him.

In consequence, they don’t even know who Marco Rubio is. And, if they do, they have no idea what his backstory is, or how he differs from Carly Fiorina on tax policy, or what sort of commander-in-chief he would aim to be. At town halls — which are by definition typically attended by political types — candidates happily go into more detail (in fact, Rubio is among the best at this). At televised debates, by contrast, they are doing little more than speed-dating the habitually detached. Odd as it may seem to the editors of the New York Times, Marco Rubio’s goal last night was to ensure that the casual observer was left with a good general impression of him. If the guy who was watching in the bar or in the airport lounge now knows that Rubio is more of an interventionist than Rand Paul, that he is opposed to the growth of the federal government, that he thinks welders are undervalued, that he comes from humble origins, and that he has a sunnier disposition than John Kasich, that’s a win. How many times do we imagine Ronald Reagan had to repeat that America was great, that the government was out of control, and that the Soviet Union was evil before he became Ronald Reagan? Five, ten, 50,000 times? If the focus groups are to be believed, Rubio did exactly what he needed to do. Ted Cruz, too. The detailed policy arguments will come later. Want to criticize somebody? Criticize the moderators for letting their interviewees get away with it.

#related#Naturally, none of this should be construed to suggest that those who are more engaged cannot find this tendency annoying or that they are wrong to dislike anybody or everybody on the stage. It is to suggest, however, that when Jonathan Chait complains that, “asked which of those giveaways [free health care, free college, and a host of other government-paid benefits] he would take back . . . Rubio did not name any, instead launching into the story about his immigrant parents and his standard stump speech,” he is rather missing the point. Rubio is not hiding his ideas from engaged figures such as Chait — on the contrary: He has released a detailed health-care plan, a detailed education plan, a detailed welfare proposal, and a detailed tax-reform package for Chait to pore over — but rather using his time in a way that he considers more efficient. Difficult as it might be for us to accept, the people on the stage last night were not aiming their pitches at the obsessives and the junkies, but at the guy flicking the channels at home in Cincinnati. We’re still in the primary-colors stage of this election. For now at least, the candidates are just not that into us.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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