Politics & Policy

Why Conservative Media Got Rubio So Wrong

(Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Let me start with a disclaimer: this is not an essay about Marco Rubio. Nor is this a criticism of Rubio’s campaign operation, which employed many very good friends and which did impressive work. Lastly, though I worked to promote his candidacy, this is not an essay about Jeb Bush.

This is an essay about how the conservative media came to equate Marco Rubio with Barack Obama, and the consequences of that false equation.

Why did the Beltway-conservative media fall for Rubio in the first place? Why, even at this late hour, do they refuse to acknowledge the fundamental weaknesses that doomed Rubio’s candidacy out of the gate? Like the restored Bourbon monarchy, the conservative press has learned nothing and forgotten nothing over the course of this primary. Let us endeavor to understand why.

I. The Republican Obama

During his candidacy, Rubio’s critics and supporters alike frequently labeled him a “Republican Obama.” On the surface, the comparison was inevitable: They shared youth, eloquence, and (in Rubio’s case potential) status as the first minority nominees of their respective parties. Similarly, their opponents attacked them for being woefully inexperienced, callow, overly ambitious, accomplishment-free, and unduly showered with media affection.

RELATED: Q&A: David Axelrod on Why Marco Rubio Wasn’t Obama 2.0

Rubio’s foes were less than concerned about the bone-deep accuracy of the “Republican Obama” line. It was a hit, after all. To Rubio’s boosters, however, the narrative became gospel. And like all gospel, the Republican Obama line is the stuff of revelation.

Take, for instance, this from Rubio booster Bill Kristol:

Spend a moment with Kristol’s tweet. Equating Marco Rubio and determination is a stretch, but we’ll leave that aside. The nut of this tweet is “but can win.” The best argument for Rubio’s candidacy was that he could win in November. He was always a process candidate.

Despite this, the conservative press embraced Rubio precisely because his rhetorical approach, age, and background reminded them of Obama. If Obama could beat Clinton in a Democratic primary, then outpace expectations to win two general elections, surely a Republican Obama had the best chance of recapturing the White House.How did conservative-media types know Rubio could win? Rubio has been in politics for most of his adult life, but he’d run statewide only once when he declared his presidential candidacy. In 2010, a great Republican year, he won a grueling three-way Senate race, but received 54,742 votes fewer than his two main opponents combined. 

RELATED: The Story of Marco Rubio’s Epic Underachievement

Yet this view stemmed from a fundamentally flawed understanding of how Obama managed to win the 2008 primary and general elections. It missed the extent to which Obama spearheaded an ideological insurgency within the Democratic Party against Bill Clinton’s Third Way. And it dramatically overestimated the power of Obama’s admittedly considerable rhetorical gifts. In short, conservative commentators fell into the same trap that has bedeviled Obama’s presidency: the belief that words have immense power to change material facts on the ground provided they are delivered by a sufficiently gifted messenger.

Obama gives a good speech. Rubio lacks Obama’s range, but of the GOP primary candidates, he was head and shoulders above the competition in terms of delivering prepared remarks.

There, however, the similarities between Obama and Rubio end. Four critical differences separate the landscape Obama faced going into 2008 from the one faced by Rubio going into 2016. All of these were hiding in plain sight, if they were hiding at all.

  1. The Democratic party in 2007 was neatly divided, on foreign and domestic policy, between its left and its center.
  2. Obama secured the support of his home-state party apparatus and key members of his party’s national leadership.
  3. Obama bet everything on Iowa and built a massive ground operation.
  4. Obama still needed Clinton to commit a several unforced errors.

Yes, Obama frequently invoked his distinctive biography. Mother from Kansas, father from Kenya, etc. But more importantly, Obama drew sharp contrasts with Clinton on the Iraq War and illegal immigration, issues that ran like red threads through the middle of the Democratic primary electorate. Using these, he combined racial minorities and the ideological left into a coalition just big enough to top Clinton’s support among working class whites (at that time the largest bloc in the Democratic coalition).

RELATED: The End of GOP Optimism

To pull off this intra-party coup, however, Obama built a massive mobilization and persuasion organization in Iowa, a state on which he bet the proverbial farm (pun intended). That organization drew personnel and money from a large number of preexisting institutions, especially in Illinois. Obama also enjoyed the tacit support of his party’s leader in the Senate.

We will never know if Obama would have run without the support of these individuals and groups. However, we can be almost certain he would have lost without them. Even with them, Obama’s ideological insurgency against a complacent party establishment needed Clinton to commit multiple unforced errors. His team ran an excellent campaign in 2008, a necessary but insufficient condition for victory. It was Clinton’s race to lose, and she had to work hard to lose it.

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II. Rubio’s Reality

By contrast, while Rubio could tell a stirring story about his father the bartender and his mother the maid, he faced the following political realities:

  1. The Republican party in 2015 was divided into numerous warring camps, but without well-aligned policy cleavages.
  2. Rubio lacked a geographic base and the preexisting organizational advantages that come with one.
  3. Rubio focused on transmitting his message through television rather than staking his candidacy on winning an early state.
  4. Rubio, rather than his opponents, committed grievous unforced errors.

A hotly divided GOP lowered the barriers to entry for many candidates, including Rubio, meaning he faced a much tougher field than Obama. But other than the immigration question, few of these lines created clear divisions that could sort the primary electorate into two (or at most three) clumps.

Bush functionally monopolized Florida, meaning Rubio had no home base outside of The Weekly Standard break room. Perhaps as a result of this, or perhaps convinced of the power of his rhetorical gifts, Rubio maintained a light organizational footprint, refusing to risk his candidacy on winning a single early state. This risk-averse, play-not-to-lose strategy technically kept his campaign alive until Florida. But his collapse on the debate stage in New Hampshire had already driven a stake through his candidacy’s core argument: that he was an able campaigner and debater who could face down Hillary Clinton. Thus, despite a second-place finish in South Carolina, Rubio was really just another casualty of February. His was a zombie campaign for the entire first half of March.

RELATED: Looking Back on the Two Cuban-American Also-Rans

Nobody could have predicted Rubio’s debate implosion months out, but the first three items on that list were fundamental flaws with his candidacy from the outset. The conservative media didn’t realize that ideology and geography matter in elections, or they willfully ignored the barriers Rubio faced. Like it or not, with Bush in the race Rubio was a geographic orphan. A year and three days passed between Rubio’s first and second endorsements from the Florida Congressional delegation. This near-uniform hostility from his state’s party apparatus should have put the lie to Rubio’s purported strength in the Sunshine State. Instead, it was treated as a badge of pride, when it was considered at all.

In the end, the conservative media loved Rubio because they thought he could win.

Ideologically, Rubio lacked a clear home in the party. To the rock-ribbed conservative, he was political O’Doul’s compared to Ted Cruz’s Colt 45. To the party’s center, his meager legislative resume looked laughable compared to a field of accomplished governors. His marquee issue  –  foreign policy  – has a narrow electoral base. Even here Rubio did not clearly distinguish himself from the field in terms of his readiness to be leader of the free world. He was liked, but unloved, and without a base he was hopeless.

So why weren’t these fatal flaws in Rubio’s candidacy enough to dissuade the Beltway-conservative press from promoting him almost to the exclusion of other candidates?

In the end, the conservative media loved Rubio because they thought he could win. They thought he could win because they thought Obama won by giving biographical speeches. Being wrong about the latter made them wrong about the former. So convinced were they in this wrongness that they overlooked overwhelming institutional barriers to Rubio’s candidacy. 

But why?

III. Aesthetics Over Process

The conservative press regards itself as a media of ideas. We need not question the veracity of this conceit here. Let us simply note that a political press self-consciously devoted to ideas may be temperamentally disinclined to cover the skullduggery, the nitty-gritty, the details and mechanics of modern campaigning. If one believes that the horse race obeys the Great Man theory of history, decision rules and demography naturally get short shrift. Rhetorical facility becomes indistinguishable from political strength. Aesthetics and personality carry the day.

To use one simple example, thanks to the internet, running for president has changed dramatically since George W. Bush won reelection in 2004. Yet changes in electioneering technique rarely besmirch the pages of the Washington Examiner, the Washington Times, and the Wall Street Journal. Conservative journals such as The Weekly StandardCommentary, or National Review will carry more stories about comic book movies this cycle than they will stories about how campaigns are using technology in new ways. Of course there are exceptions, but they are precisely that: exceptions.

#related#The conservative press’s fixation with personality and aesthetics stands in stark contrast to the left-wing press on the one hand, and to grassroots-conservative media on the other. Spend some time over at Daily Kos. Its devotion to the intimate details of modern campaigning is enviable, and one suspects it helps drive the Left’s small-donor culture by engaging supporters in the day-in, day-out process of politics.

There’s a deep hunger for conservative process journalism, an appetite that incumbent publications do not satisfy. Readers can find a good deal of high-quality writing on process scattered around the web of course. Head over to the Decision Desk HQ to marvel at what a handful of devoted conservative bloggers have built. And pay for a monthly subscription while there. Nonetheless, if the leading journals of conservative opinion refuse to take process more seriously, they will remain poor gatekeepers.

— Luke Thompson is a Republican political consultant. This piece was originally published on Medium.com and has been reprinted with permission from the author.

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