You can count me among those who have been pleased by the manner in which Marco Rubio has taken the fight to Donald Trump since Thursday evening. But, happy as I am with how the resistance is going thus far, I have a quick suggestion as to how he can hone his message into a slightly more effective form.
Stylistically, I think that Rubio’s attacks have been excellent. Yes, yes, yes — in theory I would prefer our politicians to be fighting each other solely on policy. But as a practical matter I’m not remotely offended by Rubio’s smiling mockery, or even by his more “juvenile” offerings. Not only does Trump need to be taken down a peg – and fast – but it seems to be the case that pushing the boundaries is the way of guaranteeing the unbroken media attention to which Trump has become accustomed. If Marco Rubio needs to laugh his way through a few minutes of on-the-stump roasting for his message to be heard, so be it. This politics, not ballet.
Substantively, though, I’d like to see a few changes to the offering. Specifically, I think that Rubio would benefit from talking in a little more detail about how his own plans will help people in the middle class. Already, Rubio has exhibited a formidable talent for segueing seamlessly between negative and positive campaigning — which is crucial given the manner in which the networks tend to cover everybody except for Trump. But he has not yet zeroed in on the jugular, and, in order to do so, he will need to more effectively contrast Trump’s empty posing with his own agenda. If I had my druthers, Rubio would begin his pitch with a little of his dismantling mockery, and then he would say something like this:
The frontrunner of the Republican party, Donald Trump, is a con man. And that matters — it matters a great deal. Why? Because he’s giving false hope to people who have hit the hardest of times. Many of you have been through so much over the past few years. Like my parents did, and I like I did as a young man, you’ve felt the fear that one medical bill or car breakdown could ruin your finances; you’ve had to postdate checks so that you didn’t get that call from the bank; you’ve wondered whether your children will be able to go to college. Some of you will have stayed awake at night wondering if America will ever fulfill its promise to you. And along has come Donald Trump — a selfish, arrogant billionaire — and he has decided to make America’s hopes and fears his personal plaything. Well, I think that’s a sin. I think it’s a sin. And make no mistake: Donald Trump is selling America a bill of goods, just like he did to the victims of Trump University; just like he did to the illegal immigrants that he hired to build his skyscrapers; just like he did to the good people of Atlantic City, who are now without jobs. He found good people, and he lied to them. That’s what he does.
But there is some good news, and that good news is that some of us are thinking about these things seriously: not as a game; not for our own advancement; not for our own amusement, and the amusement of the media. Some of us have taken the time to sit down and think about how we can help. And not by promising handouts or threatening to bankrupt your children, like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have; not by promising that the government will rescue you; not with vague slogans like “Hope and Change” and “Make America Great Again.” But by applying conservative principles to a new century. And when I am president of the United States, we will pass my tax plan, which I wrote with Senator Mike Lee, and we will ensure that the middle class comes roaring back. Let me tell you how we’re going to do that . . .
Now, I will happily accept that not all conservatives like Rubio’s tax plan. But, at this stage, that is really besides the point. Clearly, Rubio believes that it will help the middle class, and, in consequence, he should be making that case more readily and more frequently that he is. This does not, of course, mean that Rubio has to get rid of the jokes or remove the upbeat rhetoric or discontinue his attempt to make Trump a figure of fun; he is who he is, and he should not change that more than is necessary. But it does mean that, absent a little more focus, he will run the risk that his target audience says, “Okay, I get it: Trump is a con man and Rubio has charisma, but how is he going to address my worries?” Given Rubio’s policy fluency — and his ability to mix seriousness with levity — that risk can be easily diminished with just a few tweaks to the stump. I hope he’ll consider making them.
(N.B.: Despite having garnered less attention than Rubio over the past few days, Ted Cruz is doing yeoman’s work against Trump, and he should be praised effusively for it. That this post is solely about Marco Rubio is in no way intended to suggest otherwise, or to imply that I think the nomination is now subject to a “two man race.” I just happen to have been watching the networks flit between Trump and Rubio, and what I saw prompted these thoughts.)