The Corner

Politics & Policy

Re: How ‘Michael Jordan’ Missed His Shot

In response to Full Mail Box

If you haven’t yet read Tim Alberta’s masterly post-mortem of the Marco Rubio campaign, I’d recommend that you put aside ten minutes and do so now. The nub of Alberta’s critique is this:

Rubio’s eloquence, intelligence, boyish magnetism, and made-for-TV biography are the elements of a prototype presidential candidate. On paper, he is the Republicans’ dream and the Democrats’ nightmare. But talent in and of itself is neither transcendent nor transformational. And while the comparisons to [] basketball legend [Michael Jordan] began with Rubio’s once-in-a-generation skill set, that’s also where they ended.

Jordan’s greatness did not owe to talent alone. He was a maniacal competitor who refused to be outworked. He played to win, never waiting for opponents to beat themselves. And he was a master of all facets of the game, capable of besting different rivals in different ways rather than relying on a single strength.

Rubio is a different story. He campaigned on the ground so infrequently for much of the campaign that even some supporters questioned how hard he was willing to work to get elected. He refused to play for wins, choosing instead to position himself as everyone’s second choice in hopes of becoming the consensus unifier as the field winnowed. And his strategy was one-dimensional, leaning so heavily on personality and biography that his concrete proposals — aimed at convincing voters that he knew how to solve their problems, not just how to relate to them— never broke through.

The story of Rubio’s losing 2016 campaign is not simply that these shortcomings did him in; it’s that they were apparent early on and were ignored by a candidate and a team convinced that star power alone was enough to overcome them.

In other words, Rubio made some serious mistakes — mistakes that he could not afford given the circumstances (who would have predicted that Jeb Bush would drop 100 million against him just as he got out of the gate, or that Donald Trump would choose this year to turn primary season into the WWE?).

But I’d note, atop the justifiable criticism, that even if Rubio had run a perfect campaign, he would probably have lost this year’s nomination. It’s not just Trump — although Trump, sui generis as he is, is a huge part of the story — and it’s not just the “Gang of Eight”; it’s that the country is simply not in the mood for an optimist such as Rubio. Look at the other candidates in the race. How many of them sound like Ronald Reagan? Cruz certainly doesn’t. Clinton certainly doesn’t. Sanders certainly doesn’t. On both sides of the aisle, America is currently more Nixon ‘68 than Kennedy ‘60. Rubio, whatever mistakes he made, was not a good fit.

Will he ever be? I have no idea. It is certainly possible that Rubio will work his way back into politics. Richard Nixon was vice president from 1953 to 1961, and looked to have a bright future ahead of him. Then he lost the 1960 presidential election to John Kennedy, and then, two years later, he lost his own state’s gubernatorial race! And yet, just six years after that disaster, he won 32 states and the presidency. And four years after that he won re-election in a 49-state landslide. And then? Well, then things fell off a cliff.

For that to happen, though, the world had to turn around Nixon. The same is probably true for Rubio. In my view, a much more interesting question than “What about Rubio’s future?” is “What will the GOP look like in the future?” At this point, it seems possible that the Republican party could be even more hostile to Rubio’s politics in 2020. But, especially if Trumpism meets a disastrous end, it also seems possible that the party could have come around to a different, more hopeful message. Given my poor track record during this election, I shan’t offer a guess as to which of these options will come to fruition. A week is a long time in politics; four years even more so. The future is always Don’t Know.

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