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Marco Rubio’s Debate Flub Reminds Me Why I Like Him


He who lives by the expectations game dies by the expectations game. Marco Rubio took a third-place finish in the Iowa Caucus and turned it into a week of great publicity because he exceeded expectations. But that put a lot of high expectations on him going into New Hampshire, and at Saturday night’s debate, he fell below those expectations with a notable flub. Criticized by Chris Christie for repeating lines from his stump speech, Rubio … repeated lines from his stump speech.

Now, let’s stipulate that a politician repeating his stump speech is not exactly a crime. That’s what the stump speech is for: to refine your message and boil it down to the “memorized 25-second speech” that gets applause. Ironically, Christie launched this attack in service of the point that features in his memorized stump speech: that only governors, not senators, are “accountable.” Still, it was not a great moment for Rubio, and it hurts him because it seems to undermine one of Rubio’s actual strong points, which is his command of policy issues.

But that’s why I don’t think this will stick over the long term, because Rubio is not just a guy who repeats talking points. Unfortunately, Rubio has to face New Hampshire voters in the short term, though they may not have been paying as much attention to that exchange as the pundits did.

More to the point, Rubio rallied in the second half of the debate with much stronger, more in-depth answers on the Islamic State. And that, perhaps paradoxically, reminded me why I prefer him for the Republican nomination. I prefer him because I think we need to pick a foreign policy president above all else.

I say “prefer” because I disavow some of the bitter internecine partisanship of the primaries. I’m no fan of Donald Trump, but both Rubio and Ted Cruz have significant points in their favor — and both still fall far short of the ideal. So I’m able to look at the struggles of these politicians with a certain amount of equanimity by virtue of having low expectations. Like The Eagles, I’ve got a peaceful, easy feeling, and I know they won’t let me down, because I’m already standing on the ground.

I prefer Rubio because we need to pick a foreign policy president above all else.

The best case for Cruz is made by Erick Erickson, who argues that Cruz is a “transformational” candidate who will “see Washington rent asunder.” Except that I’m always wary of the siren song of “transformational.” Cruz may very well try to rend Washington asunder, but no one man can do that — and thank goodness for it — because if that were possible, then someone like Barack Obama would already have done so. (That, double irony, is the point Rubio was repeatedly repeating.)

The fact is that if any big changes are going to be implemented after 2016, this will depend way more on Congress than the president. What the Republican Congress needs is a president who isn’t going to veto them every step of the way and leadership that isn’t scared of its own shadow. That, come to think of it, is a good case for keeping Cruz in the Senate.

Where a president can take more action on his own authority is in foreign policy. And if you think a big turnaround in foreign policy is a top priority — as I do — then that’s actually a case for Rubio.

Take a pretty good Strategic Outlook

Foreign policy and defense are the areas where the president has the most independent power. Congress has some means to block a president from pursuing a particular policy they oppose. But they have no real means to force a president to act when he doesn’t want to, and that has been the story of the last seven years. This has left an enormous vacuum of global power, and the next president needs to be willing to act vigorously to restore some American leadership in the world.

If you think a big turnaround in foreign policy is a top priority, that’s actually a case for Rubio.

So in picking a candidate on the basis of his foreign policy, the first thing we have to ask is: what is his strategic outlook? And does he even have one? It is astonishing how many don’t — the besetting vice of most politicians, not to mention pundits, and, I am sad to say, most voters. I’ve become convinced over the years that, by far, the most popular foreign policy position cutting across party lines is: “I don’t want to have to think about foreign policy.” Even a lot of what looks like “security voters” are mostly angry because terrorist attacks that hit too close to home — Paris or San Bernardino — force them to think about foreign policy. Their commandment to politicians is: keep the turmoil halfway across the world where we can ignore it.

That is actually a pretty good outcome, but to get there, a political leader has to have some kind of overarching plan, or at least an idea of what the threats are and how the world works. That’s what I mean by a strategic outlook: a broad conception of who our enemies are, what motivates them, how they are trying to win, and what we can do to thwart them.

So it should go without saying, for example, that a candidate who thinks we had a successful “reset” with Russia and have made friends with Iran, or who refuses to use the phrase “radical Islam,” lacks the most rudimentary basis for a strategic outlook. Such a candidate refuses to recognize even the existence of our enemies. So that disqualifies the Democratic candidates.

On ISIS, Rubio is the opposite of scripted.

The same goes for someone who thinks he can get along just fine with Vladimir Putin because he shared a green room with him once (except that he didn’t), or who doesn’t know basic issues of national defense (like what the nuclear triad is), or who doesn’t know the basic players and personalities and competing interests in the Middle East. That’s especially true for someone who swears he can become a total expert on all of this in no time flat but who never seems to take the time to actually do so. This disqualifies Trump.

What we need is someone who understands and can describe what Russia wants and what it’s up to, what the Iranian regime wants and what it’s trying to do, what ISIS wants and how it operates, and so on. That has been Rubio’s strong point from the moment he announced his candidacy, and it was on display when he rallied in the second half of the New Hampshire debate, as in this response on what he would do about ISIS. What he gave us was pretty much the exact opposite of a canned response or memorized speech.

Well, first, we need to understand who they are. ISIS is not just a jihadist group, they’re an apocalyptic group. … The reason why it’s important to understand that is because these are not groups that are just going to go away on their own. They are going to have to be defeated. And I believe they need to be defeated on the ground, by a ground force, made up primarily of Sunni Arabs. That will need to be backed up with more US special operation forces alongside them. And it will have to be backed up with increased air strikes. … The problem with the Sunni forces in the region is they don’t trust this administration. This administration cut a deal with their mortal enemies, the Shia, in Iran. … They also, by the way, understand what real US air power looks like. They saw the Iraq war. They saw up close, also, Afghanistan. They know what air power looks like when the United States is committed to the cause. And they see the airstrikes that are being conducted now, and they say to themselves, that’s not real commitment.

The whole response was worth reading or listening to, and it showed that Rubio has thought through his strategy against ISIS to a further extent than anyone else on the stage.

By contrast, Trump declared that we would bomb the oil and take the oil, which doesn’t sound possible, at least not in that order. And Cruz didn’t get much more detailed than to say, “We should use overwhelming force, kill the enemy, and then get the heck out. Don’t engage in nation-building.”

This has been Cruz’s overall line on Syria and was pretty accurately summed up in one paradoxical headline: “‘Destroy Islamic State,’ avoid intervention.” The idea is that we can act to demolish one of the major players in the Syrian civil war without taking sides in the Syrian civil war. This indicates to me that Cruz hasn’t really projected all the preconditions and consequences of U.S. action and all the steps required to defeat the Islamic State permanently.

But Cruz’s position on foreign policy is well-calculated to thread a certain political needle. The average Republican voter still sees himself as hawkish but wants to distance himself from the kind of long, difficult intervention involved in the Iraq War. So he wants someone who vows to crush our enemies but who also promises that it will be over quickly and involve no complicated follow-on, so we can all go back to ignoring foreign policy again.

Personal Commitment

The fact that Cruz’s policy makes more sense politically than militarily raises a deeper concern, because the second big thing I look for in a foreign-policy president, after a strategic outlook, is commitment. By that I mean: how seriously does he take his foreign policy goals? Does he view it as a political issue or as something he is committed to on a personal level?

In a way, this is more important, because whatever a president’s strategic outlook going into office, there are unexpected new threats and crises that will emerge, and his original plans will go awry. Always. What matters then is what he will do, the degree of his personal commitment to following up, changing his strategy, and doing whatever is necessary to protect American interests.

The fact that Rubio put foreign policy at the center of his campaign before it was cool gives me some confidence that it is an issue of real, personal commitment.

To be sure, it’s hard to gauge sincerity of personal commitment in a politician, since this is precisely the thing they are rewarded for faking. But what I find significant about Rubio is that he was campaigning on foreign policy before it was cool. His level of knowledge on foreign policy, the degree to which he has thought it through, and the fact that he put it at the center of his campaign before it was at the center of voters’ concerns gives me some confidence that it is an issue of real personal commitment for him.

I don’t want to exaggerate the difference between Rubio and Cruz. While Rubio is likely to want a greater degree of proactive American intervention, for example, he is likely to be restrained by congressional reluctance, which will tend to push his policy more in Cruz’s direction. And if Cruz tries his “bomb ISIS and leave” strategy and that’s not enough, as is likely, he will be drawn to do more — and yes, even to engage in that dreaded “nation-building” — rather than leave the Islamic State to fester and grow, as Obama did. After all, you know who else once campaigned for president on his opposition to “nation-building”? George W. Bush.

But given that there is not really a vast difference between the two candidates on domestic policy, and foreign policy is more important for a president, I’m leaning toward the candidate who seems to have a fuller understanding and more personal commitment going into office. That is Rubio.

And it was his early debate flub on Saturday — contrasted with his later demonstration of clear, thorough thinking on foreign policy — which confirmed that impression.