Everybody is aghast about Marco Rubio's performance at Saturday night's Republican presidential debate. It was pretty hard not to cringe: Chris Christie criticized Rubio for giving canned answers to questions — and Rubio responded by giving the same canned answer to the question. Several times.
Conventional wisdom quickly crystallized around this being a portentous moment for the Florida senator. It was the last debate before the New Hampshire primary and expectations were high given his stronger-than-expected finish in Iowa and his string of recent debate performances. Worse, the exchange seemed to crystallize many of the fears about Rubio: that he is too young and inexperienced to be president; that he lacks depth; and that, relatedly, he chokes under pressure.
These are all fair points when it comes to playing the political game. But they doesn't really measure up with reality.
First off, this was just one moment in one debate, and campaigns rarely turn on such events.
But more importantly, this narrative of Rubio-bot, the scripted Rubio, is strange given that Rubio has actually shown a surprising amount of depth for a politician, even for a presidential candidate. As Reihan Salam pointed out recently, Rubio began his career in city politics — where the important stuff is not to make speeches, but to figure out how to fix potholes. As speaker of the Florida House, Rubio wrote an ideas book, 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida's Future, that was pretty policy-dense as far as these things go.
And in longer interviews and town halls, he's consistently shown command of the issues. Here's how Jonathan Last, a senior writer at The Weekly Standard, described a recent Rubio performance at a New Hampshire town hall:
During the Q&A, he's asked by a doctor about the future of medicine. Rubio starts by talking about the decline in physician legacies — how the children of doctors no longer become doctors — then moves to talk about the decline of specialists; then moves to explain how the dwindling number of specialists create access problems; and then concludes by explaining his reform plan. During the course of the morning he talks like this — fluidly and lucidly — about GMO foods, farming, mandatory-minimum sentences, criminal forfeiture, and vaccinations. [The Weekly Standard]
This is not a robot or an airhead being fed talking points by consultants.
So what gives?
Here's the reality: Marco Rubio's "gaffe" wasn't so much an indictment of him, but an indictment of the whole process.
It boils down to media saturation. While people in the media and political class have heard stump speeches by politicians a hundred times, actual voters only get to hear them once, if that. And the bits they hear on TV work like advertising: Because they only give it part of their attention, repetition is the only way to ensure they actually listen. But it's a double-edged sword. As we've seen with #Rubiobotgate, a stray comment will get enlarged a thousand times and endlessly replayed on TV.
This is the paradox of modern politics: Voters constantly complain about politicians being over-scripted and over-cautious, but relentlessly punish them for saying anything even slightly out of the ordinary. (Unless you're Donald Trump, of course.) And our media culture demands that people express themselves in two-minute soundbites, because viewers don't have the attention span for more.
So you get politicians who learn, and rehearse, and repeat soundbites ad infinitum. It's said that the worst political scandals are the ones where a politician accidentally tells the truth. Here, we have a political scandal because a politician actually demonstrated the truth.
This is the sort of politician voters demand, so this is the sort of politician voters get.