The Corner

Politics & Policy

Rubio Was Right, and Christie Wrong, about Obama

Sometimes you outsmart yourself. After re-watching the excruciating Rubio-Christie exchange (embedded in David’s post), I can’t help but think that Marco Rubio outsmarted himself – or at least locked in on the wrong part of Chris Christie’s commentary and, in the heat of the moment, couldn’t let go.

In the post-mortem, it has been noted repeatedly that Christie attacked Rubio as an unaccomplished, programmed candidate. But Rubio’s alleged insufficiencies were only one part of Christie’s argument. The other, the actual premise of Christie’s critique, was the analogy of Rubio to Obama.

Christie contends that the Obama who ran for president in 2008 was an unaccomplished, hyper-programmed, first-term senator who was utterly unprepared to be president. That, according to Christie, has caused seven years of amateur-hour governance. To elect Rubio, he thus concludes, would be to invite another disastrous presidency led by an untested young man who would be in way over his head.

This analogy to Obama, rather than Rubio’s own alleged failings, was the part of Christie’s case that Rubio seized on. To some extent, this is understandable: Rubio is on surer footing talking about Obama than about his own record of accomplishment, the best known aspect of which is pushing through the senate, in collusion with Obama, a bipartisan immigration bill that is anathema to the GOP base (but, by the way, would have been fine with GOP “moderates” like Christie).

Yet Rubio also had an important point: Christie’s premise is dead wrong. Obama has not steered the Titanic into an iceberg because he is an unprepared, untested amateur. He has done it quite deliberately, at times masterfully, because Obama believes in the policies that constitute the iceberg. He is a movement leftist with a transformational agenda and an Alinskyite’s understanding of the extortionate uses of power. Authoritarian rule, government-controlled health care, open borders, runaway spending, Islamist sympathies, crony-capitalist green energy – these are not initiatives Obama stumbled into because he was unprepared. Obama has studiously taken the country where he wants it to go. And he has rolled over the old experienced hands to do it – so much for amateur hour.

Obama is not the bumpkin of Christie’s portrayal. But Christie is not so much wrong in this regard as calculated. Progressive-lite types like Christie want Obama’s failed presidency to be seen as the consequence of lack of experience rather than as policy-driven because they often cooperate with Obama Democrats and sympathize with a number of their policy preferences.

Christie couldn’t get enough of Obama after “Super Storm Sandy” – regardless of how much it undermined Mitt Romney. At best, Christie has been ambivalent in his opposition to Obamacare – carefully navigating between his instinctive support of it and the intense opposition of more conservative voters whom he knew he’d be courting in the 2016 GOP primaries. And while Christie is trying to appeal to conservatives as the adult in the room willing to speak hard truths about entitlements and debt spending, his record as governor is: Talk a good game but do essentially nothing about our basket-case state’s structural problems. That is a big part of why, as Rubio pointed out, Christie’s tenure has featured multiple credit downgrades.

The Christies of the Republican party insist that the country is in disastrous shape because Obama was not up to the job. In truth, Obama used Democratic congressional control when he had it to push through Obamacare and Dodd-Frank; ever since, having taken the measure of feckless GOP opposition, he has skillfully (albeit illegally) exploited executive power to pursue progressive objectives. Obama has been plenty up to the job as he intended the job to be done.

This reality is not helpful to a Christie, who wants to be seen as a pragmatic problem-solver willing to “cross the aisle.” The logic of Christie’s championing of bipartisan cooperation “to get things done” has necessarily meant working in furtherance of Obama’s agenda (and, in New Jersey, working closely with Democrats – which is how you get multiple credit downgrades). No one courting the Republican base can afford to be seen as complicit in Obama’s program. So, for Christie, if Obama is to be portrayed as a failure, it’s got to be because Obama wasn’t prepared to be president, not because of policies Republicans have supported.

Rubio was absolutely right to make the point that Christie’s portrayal of Obama was badly flawed. Unfortunately, (a) having made the point once, there was no need to repeat it twice, and (b) having infamously colluded with GOP progressives on immigration and foreign policy debacles (e.g., Libya), Rubio has trouble making the case that Christie has a motive to limn Obama as a bumbling neophyte. Consequently, Rubio appeared to be repeating talking-points about Obama to no good end, rather than connecting them into a sharp appraisal of Christie’s vastly overrated record of executive accomplishment.

This was inexcusable. I hear what Mona is saying about the “wit of the staircase” – the “what I should have said” regrets we all express after a missed opportunity. But my day job used to include appellate argument, and you never go into court without a “murder board” at which you are remorselessly drilled on the hard questions you know your adversaries and the judges are going to ask.

Nothing Christie did on Saturday night was unexpected; he’s been saying these things about Rubio for weeks, and he was openly vowing there would be more of the same at the debate. Rubio had to know it was coming. Rubio, moreover, must have known that, at the undercard debate in which Christie participated a few weeks back, Bobby Jindal repeatedly zinged Christie on his record, and Christie had no effective response. (Ironically, rather than defend himself, Christie deflected by talking about Obama and Hillary Clinton).

Given these circumstances, it is just astonishing that a speaker as polished and reputedly programmed as Rubio was not ready with a devastating 90-second critique of Christie: tying him to Obama and explaining that qualifications are not, as Christie claims, merely about having executive responsibilities; they are about how you exercise executive power.

My guy in the race is Ted Cruz. As I’ve said before, though, there’s a lot to like about Marco Rubio – and yesterday, Kevin outlined well both the downsides and the reasons for optimism. Rubio will survive this stumble. But he’ll be better for it only if he recognizes what he did wrong while remaining mindful of what he had right.


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