Monday, February 08, 2016

Rubio Runs Home to Mama

Courtney Vance as Seaman Jones in Hunt for Red October
The title of this evening's blog is not meant to imply that Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio scurried home with his tail between his legs after taking a beating during Saturday night's GOP presidential debate.

As an avid history geek, I dig war films as much as the next guy, and submarine movies are one of my favorite genres, so tonight's title is taken from a line of movie dialog to characterize Rubio's unfortunate tendency to repeat himself in stressful situations - allow me to digress for a moment.

Paramount's fast-paced 1990 Cold War-era techno-spy-submarine thriller The Hunt For Red October , directed by Die Hard director John McTiernan, ranks up there with Das Boot, The Enemy Below and Run Silent, Run Deep as one of the best Hollywood submarine movies.

One of my favorite scenes is when Seaman Jones, played by actor Courtney B. Vance, explains to the captain of the attack submarine on which he serves (the U.S.S Dallas) how the $40 million computer American subs use to track and identify enemy submarines made a mistake that helped "Jonesy" find and identify the secret Soviet submarine the Red October using a $20 cassette player.

At the start of the film, the crew of the Dallas finds the Red October by chance, but then it mysteriously disappears from their tracking scopes while the Americans are pursuing the Soviet vessel, leaving Captain Bart Mancuso (played by actor Scott Glenn), and his loyal crew confused and tense; what they don't know is that the Red October has a super secret silent propulsion drive that enables the Soviet sub to run silent in the water.

A real Underwater Warfare Desk on a British Naval Vessel
Jonesy, the sonar operator on the Dallas, discovers that the Signal Algorithmic Processing Software (SAPS) that the pricey computer the Dallas uses to find enemy subs, which was originally used to detect seismic anomalies like underwater earthquakes, misidentified the sound of the Red October's engines as a "magma displacement".

Basically it thought it was hearing lava rather than a submarine.

The determined Jonesy explains to the captain that when the Navy's over-priced computer gets confused it "runs home to mama" because it couldn't recognize the sound of the nearly-silent Soviet sub and by simply following this "magma displacement" signal, the Americans can now track the Red October and boom; the game is afoot.

Now after watching Marco Rubio's implosion during the most recent GOP debate on Saturday night, it occurred to me that he's a lot like that $40 million submarine computer in The Hunt For Red October.

He's intelligent, polished, efficient and has clear potential - but his original programming limits his ability to think creatively, exposing glaring weaknesses in his political game that leave him looking not quite ready for prime time.
Rubio repeats anti-Obama mantras - Christie waits to strike
To paraphrase Jonesy, when it got tense during the debate on Saturday night, Rubio "ran home to mama", and it wasn't pretty as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie deftly followed up a week of aggressive political media jabs by delivering some serious body blows to Rubio's shaky presidential ambitions.

As political reporter Amber Phillips observed in a sharp recap of Rubio's weak debate performance in Sunday's Washington Post, "Chris Christie owned Marco Rubio in Saturday Night's GOP Debate."

I don't necessarily blame Rubio for that, I think it's more the fault of the handlers, political consultants and campaign managers responsible for shaping his overall message and prepping his debate strategy.

Let's look back for a moment.

As Rubio languished somewhere in the upper middle of the crowded field of GOP candidates over most of the course of the summer and fall of 2015, he generally wasn't too threatening to the top-tier Republican candidates.

One word sums up Rick Perry's fatal 2011 debate error
Rubio never screwed up in the same way former Texas governor Rick Perry did back in 2011 during the now-infamous CNBC Republican presidential  debate.

Perry generated an epic career-ending implosion when he boasted (Texas style) about eliminating three federal departments to shrink the size of government if elected president; then totally forgot one of them during a live nationally televised broadcast.

It's almost too painful to watch, but interestingly if you do watch the 2-minute clip, Perry was actually doing quite well with his answer before he decided to pivot back to Rand Paul, Senior and make a point.

Rubio's debate performance didn't veer into that kind of deep political chasm, but over the course of 2015 he never really managed to do anything to really break out the pack either; for the most part he played it safe, possibly betting that the other candidates would shred each other apart leaving him standing as a viable option during the 2016 primaries.

Even though he was elected to the Senate with Tea Party support, Rubio has proved quite adept at being able to steer clear of the crazy right-wing territory where Senator Ted Cruz and Donald Trump love to wallow like hogs in an extremist mud pit.

With his youthful charm, good looks and by constantly repeating his earnest touchy-feely Horatio Alger-immigrant-family success story (even as he disassociates himself from having been in the bipartisan group of eight Senators to try and push a progressive immigration bill), Rubio was able to keep himself relatively squeaky clean.

Rubio outperformed his rivals in Colorado in October
By late October, Rubio began to finally distinguish himself from the crowded middle of the pack with a solid debate performance in the third GOP debate televised by CNBC which took place in Colorado.

In the eyes of the media Rubio was THE story of that debate where his immigrant success story and superficial anti-Obama talk points played well even as he got the best of Jeb Bush as the two traded barbs, and he proved agile on his feet as he took some shots at other opponents.

When he placed a strong 3rd just behind Donald Trump and winner Ted Cruz in the Iowa caucus last week, Rubio suddenly came under even more intense scrutiny by the media; and became more of a threat to his opponent's chances.

While Chris Christie made headlines at Saturday's February 6th debate for berating Rubio for his almost robotic repetition of the exact same anti-Obama sound bites, Andrew Bradford was one of many observers who had been calling Rubio out for his stiff verbiage as far back as February 2nd.

In the same article posted on last Tuesday, Bradford also pointed out the increasingly publicized fact that Rubio's post-Iowa "3rd place finish victory speech" was awkwardly similar to the speech President Obama gave after upsetting Hillary Clinton to win the Iowa caucus.

Obama's 2008 Iowa caucus victory speech
Even more strange, Rubio also began to indirectly compare himself to "2008 Barack Obama", a smart, ambitious young Senator who appealed to younger voters, even while simultaneously trashing President Obama with the same assortment of bizarre bullet points he used Saturday night.

Warning people of the dangers of a 2nd term President?

C'mon dude, really?

Looking back, Rubio's campaign advisers might have done better to take Chris Christie more seriously last week.

Still unable to break into the top-tier after a miserable finish in Iowa, Christie was desperate to gain traction in New Hampshire and sensed blood; and like a Great White shark sensing an injured seal in the water, last week Christie eagerly swam up from the depths of his single-digit polling towards Rubio and began attacking.

Christie called him a "bubble boy" in reference to the isolated bubble in which Rubio seems to exist; never going off script or saying anything unrehearsed - which was a shrewd tactical move by Christie as talking off the cuff is his strength and no one thrives off of close quarter political combat like him.

Now Rubio is a clever and experienced politician, but he doesn't know how to brawl like Chris Christie does, and during the debate on Saturday night, Christie swam in for the kill.

Alex Conant
Despite all the "Bubble Boy" jabs, Rubio's campaign manager and his communications director Alex Conant (a veteran of Iowa Republican Senator Joni Ernst's 2014 campaign and a former deputy press secretary at the White House under George W. Bush) still hadn't prepared his candidate for the ferocity of Christie's attack, and rather than respond nimbly and launch an effective counterattack by referencing the Bridge Gate scandal, or highlight New Jersey's struggling state economy, Rubio did nothing.

Like the $40 million computer in The Hunt For Red October, Rubio didn't seem to be able to recognize  Christie's attack for what it was - which was a political kick in the teeth.

Instead of swinging back, Rubio "ran home to mama" and feebly kept repeating the exact same nonsensical line about Obama's determination to change the country that's been carefully programmed into his head by his handlers - even as Christie stood there smirking and called Rubio out for it.

Maybe that's the result of being surrounded by advisors schooled in the "just bash Obama" political strategy, but I have to give Christie props as a politician for his debate savvy.

I'm not his biggest fan obviously, but the guy knows how to play the game. With all the rumors last week of people in the Bush and Christie camp talking quietly behind the scenes to coordinate attacks on Rubio to take him down a notch, my sense is that Christie is now fighting for a possible cabinet position or possibly a vice-presidential spot on a moderate Republican ticket.

Christie's poll numbers are just too low and the impending Bridge Gate court cases make him too much of a political liability for the Republican party to run him as the 2016 candidate.

It will take a lot more than taking shots at Rubio to win in New Hampshire; but with snow a possible factor in keeping some people away from caucus locations tomorrow who knows what will happen.

Some New Hampshire precincts will cast ballots at midnight, so we'll know soon enough what kind of results Christie's debate performance will yield; and whether Rubio's lackluster performance will make his 3rd place finish in Iowa seem like a distant memory.

It's a little late to completely reprogram Marco Rubio, but the least they could do is update the software.

If he can't learn to counterattack better than he did on Saturday or at least get some new talking points, as far as Rubio's winning the 2016 GOP nomination, well that dog just ain't gonna hunt.

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