Politics & Policy

Marco Rubio’s Affect Problem

(Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Obama not so subtly responded to things that had been said by Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Chris Christie.

It’s not surprising that Obama hit these candidates. They are the most pungent, edgy, and — especially in the case of Trump — outrageous communicators in the Republican field. And it’s not surprising that Marco Rubio didn’t make the cut.

It’s a bizarre thing to say, but Rubio may be too polished and sunny for the current Republican moment. At a time of deep foreboding and rage within the GOP about the direction of the country and the performance of the party, Rubio constantly points to broad, sunlit uplands of the 21st century.

As a supporter of Rubio says, “He doesn’t do anger.” And he doesn’t do harsh or cutting, either.

Rubio is invariably smooth and well informed. In any other year, these are prized qualities in and of themselves. But so far this campaign has rewarded bombast and hard-edged, off-color rhetoric more, and Rubio doesn’t sing in that register. This may be why Rubio — a natural political talent — hasn’t connected more (although he’s running third and could certainly still break out.)

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Consider the debate over how to fight ISIS. Cruz wants to let the Syrian civil war that has been a boon to ISIS burn on, has been reluctant to endorse any American ground force, and promises — in the easiest and most alluring promise that any politician can ever make about a military conflict — to fight ISIS from the air.

Rubio has a much more robust approach involving U.S. ground forces. But Cruz famously says he will “carpet-bomb ISIS,” and that — in both senses of the word — trumps Rubio.

Carpet-bombing isn’t how you defeat an insurgent army; we aren’t going to indiscriminately bomb Mosul or Raqqa like Dresden. The advantage of the carpet-bombing line, though, is that it sounds harsh and serious, it is emotive, and it elicits the disdain of the Left and the media.

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Even President Obama took the bait. The president’s shot at Cruz, of course, was great for the Texas senator. It gave his line more play and allowed him to demonstrate his stalwartness by not backing down and, in fact, by doubling down.

Asked about Obama said by Megyn Kelly after the State of the Union, Cruz responded (emphasis added): “Well, listen, I will apologize to no one for my willingness and commitment to killing terrorists. . . . If I’m elected president, we will defeat radical Islamic terrorism and we will utterly destroy ISIS, and yes, that means carpet-bombing them into oblivion, it means arming the Kurds, it means using our military force so that any jihadist who declares war and tries to murder Americans will be defeated.”

This is a classic bit of Cruz rhetoric, with adverbial punch (utterly), robust verbs (kill, destroy), and strong nouns (oblivion). It is a small masterpiece in taking an unremarkable policy and dialing it to 11 and making it sound like the invasion of Normandy — and Cruz can do this on almost any topic.

#share#Rubio was also on with Megyn Kelly after the State of the Union and said all the right things about ISIS and terrorism, without uttering anything that was nearly as hard-hitting as the Cruz lines. A sample from Rubio on ISIS: “This is a sophisticated group now who is figuring out how to use our immigration system to get fighters in here, not to mention growing their affiliate branches across multiple countries around the world, and they pose a very significant threat.”

It’s hard to believe that anyone is going to be more substantively hawkish against ISIS than Rubio, but he doesn’t communicate strength the way that Trump and Cruz do. His straight-to-the-camera terrorism ad feels soft-focus, and although its final line about how “either they win or we do” is stark, it’s not a rhetorical hammer blow like Trump’s “bombing the s***” out of ISIS.

Now, the purpose of these ads is very different, so the comparison isn’t really fair — Rubio’s is meant only to be a light introduction to the candidate. But they speak to the radically different affect around their campaigns. The mood of the Rubio ad is cheerful, gently self-mocking, relatable, down to earth. The mood of the Trump ad is dark, apocalyptic, threatening, and strong. Which do you think is closer to what Republican voters are feeling?

Rubio’s rhetoric has taken on more of an edge lately, and going back to his 2010 Senate campaigns, his defense of American exceptionalism has been intertwined with a sense that America as we know it is being lost. Except Rubio doesn’t seem very angry about it, and that could be a problem.


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