A lot of people have been telling Marco Rubio that he had to start attacking Donald Trump. Well, he did that last night—and with devastating effectiveness.
He was particularly effective in catching the way Trump tries to filibuster every response by repeating the same half-dozen catchphrases. That gave Rubio the perfect opportunity to take the “robot” attack made against him in New Hampshire and turn it with greater force against Trump: “I see him repeat himself every night, he says five things, everyone’s dumb, he’s gonna make America great again, we’re going to win win win, he’s winning in the polls. And the lines around the states. Every night.” Trump was reduced to sputtering in return: “No, no, no! No no no! I don’t repeat myself! I don’t repeat myself!”
Folks, the jokes write themselves.
Yet Rubio didn’t exactly try to out-Trump Trump. When he attacked, Rubio did it with an amused smile. The photo that summed up the debate is this one.
You tell me, just visually, who looks in control, and who looks on the defensive.
Rubio has to attack with a smile, because as important as it is to take out the opposition, Rubio also needs to remember that his distinctive brand is uplift and optimism. In this respect, he is the only remaining candidate who represents an approach that is the diametric opposite of Trumpism. Call it Rubio-ism.
“Rubio-ism” isn’t quite the right term, because the approach I’m talking about is not one that Rubio invented or is unique to him. But he is its only representative remaining in the Republican contest. Rubio’s approach is to promote the ideas and policies of the Right in a way that is optimistic, inspirational, aspirational, and inclusive. He exudes a heady confidence that limited government and free markets are for everyone, and that we should all join together as one America to follow that ideal.
I was really struck by this in Rubio’s speech last weekend after the South Carolina primary, when he pitched himself as an heir to Ronald Reagan.
We as a nation have faced troubling times before. In fact, 36 years ago this nation faced a period of doubt. After a failed presidency, it felt like America was in decline, the economy was stagnant, and it felt like the American Dream was slipping away. And then we elected a president that inspired us, a president who asked us to remember who we were and who believed, as we do, that America’s greatest days always lie ahead, Ronald Reagan made us believe that it was morning in America again, and it was. Well, now the children of the Reagan Revolution are ready to assume the mantle of leadership. Now those of us who grew up when it was morning in America and Ronald Reagan was in the White House are ready to do…for the next generation what Ronald Reagan did for ours.
That’s why the following observation from someone outside the Right stood out to me. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni observes that Rubio and Cruz are nearly identical to each in ideological terms, and from his perspective, this is true. The real difference is this: “With a sunny voice, Rubio presented himself as an instrument of hope. With a gloomy one, Cruz played the vessel of dread…[appealing to] voters’ fears that all that stands between them and ruin is a warrior whose stridency proves his mettle.”
Bruni concludes: “Although Cruz leans harder than Rubio does on the memory of Ronald Reagan, it’s Rubio who has learned from Reagan—and from George W. Bush—that conservatism is best sold with uplift.”
This difference is why Rubio keeps giving speeches about his second- or third-place finishes that look and sound like victory speeches. It’s because his speeches are always about how we’ve taken the first step forward into a glorious future. It’s because he always offers a sense of uplift and optimism. His campaign isn’t a desperate rear-guard action against the dying of the American Dream. Instead, it’s “the beginning of a new American Century.”
I don’t think I realized, until Saturday night when I was watching that South Carolina speech, just how much I’ve missed this—and how much the country needs it.
Because Rubio offers an uplifting vision, he also offers one that is inclusive—his biggest contrast to Trump. One of the most revealing moments of the South Carolina campaign was when governor Nikki Haley told reporters to look up on stage where an Indian-American governor stood next to a black senator and a Hispanic presidential candidate and remarked that Rubio’s campaign looked “like a Benetton commercial.” For those who don’t remember, Benetton is a clothing retailer that used to be known for ads that emphasized the racial diversity of their models.
That’s ancient history, otherwise known as the 1980s, but it might be almost as hard to remember all the way back to 2012, when President Obama’s re-election prompted some soul-searching among Republicans about the need for the party to reach out to black and Hispanic voters and try to win some of them away from the Democrats. Several candidates this time around based their campaigns at least in part on this “reformed” Republican agenda, including Rick Perry, Rand Paul, and Bobby Jindal.
Then along came Trump, and all of that got thrown out the window. He built a hugely successful campaign based on anger, defiance of political correctness, complaints about Chinese factories and immigrant labor, and shouts that Mexicans are rapists. Which is pretty much the opposite of what the GOP originally set out to do this year.
Trump’s campaign slogan may be about making America great again, but his speeches are always about how we’re losing all the time—and to whom we’re losing. Pessimism goes hand-in-hand with a zero-sum view of the world, in which every person’s gain is somebody else’s loss. So it’s no wonder that Trump’s world-view is fundamentally adversarial: we’re going to win again by throwing out those other SOBs who are beating us, and we’re going to make them pay.
There is no greater contrast to this than Rubio’s message, which is about offering the same hopeful message to everyone. Here is the other important passage from his South Carolina speech. After describing the humble beginnings and hardscrabble background of the Republican leaders on stage—Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, and himself—he concluded:
We are a nation and a people that celebrates success. We are a nation that admires people who have worked hard and moved ahead. And as conservatives we will always celebrate success. But we fight for those who are still trying to make it…. We will fight for you, because we come from where you are now, because we lived the way you live now. And we know that limited government and free enterprise and a strong national defense is a better way forward for you, for me, for us, and for the United States of America.
This is not about pandering to minorities or trying to win at the Democrats’ game of offering more free stuff from the government. It’s about making the case that free enterprise and the ideas of the Right are universal.
Rubio also made a point about being sensitive to cases in which government policy can hurt or help people in particular circumstances, such as in this response to a black supporter.
No other major candidate remaining in the primaries is able to do this or seems interested in trying. And that’s why we need Rubio and his approach.
The distinctive feature of Rubio’s discussion of race is that it is non-adversarial. He prefaces a discussion like the one above with an expression of gratitude to the police, and he makes it part of a wider message about how “we’re all in this together.” Or he discusses whether he ever experienced racism as a child, but then says he “never saw it as a reflection on America” and that his parents “never raised us to feel like we were victims.”
This short-circuits the whole politics of racial resentment. The Democrats appeal to minorities by saying that America is at fault for all of their troubles and needs to be fundamentally transformed. Trump plays that game from the other end, asking blue-collar white voters, “Aren’t you angry at being blamed for everything when it’s really those Mexican immigrants who are ruining the country?” See for example, how Breitbart News (for all practical purposes, a wing of the Trump campaign), spins Rubio’s “sting of racism” response or how Ann Coulter describes Rubio as running an “anti-white-men” campaign. They’re running the same politics of racial resentment, just in reverse.
Instead, Rubio appeals to the idea that this is a great country because we can all pursue the American Dream together.
I’ve expressed my concern that Trump is a politician who will use up the Republican Party’s resources and credibility in the service of his own voracious need for celebrity while wrecking its agenda. And Cruz, in echoing Trump’s angry, confrontational style (and adopting too much of his anti-immigration, anti-trade agenda) is a leader who may fight for some important ideological goals, but who will not be good at broadening the appeal of those ideas. Cruz is the candidate for those who think this is as good as it gets for the spread of our ideas, that there’s nobody out there to be convinced, and there’s nothing but a pitched battle between irreconcilable camps. Rubio offers the hope of something more like the Reagan Revolution, which won over former Democrats and independents and noticeably moved the country to the right for decades.
Maybe I’m over-optimistic. Like Rubio, I am also a child of the Reagan era, where being hopeful and uplifting and telling us that America’s best days are ahead was a winning message. Maybe we’re both out of step with the Deadpool era. Then again, I’ve been through this before. I’m just old enough to remember the washed-out hopelessness and cynicism of the late 1970s, the era of “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it any more.” And maybe it’s precisely because we live in that kind of era that we will find, once again, that an optimistic message is exactly what we need.