The GOP's Rubio dilemma

The Republican presidential field is debating whether Obama knows what he's doing — and whether Rubio does either

The GOP has some reservations about Marco Rubio.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Marco Rubio suffered a massively deflating fifth-place finish in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary. And he's owning it, telling his supporters that "our disappointment tonight is not on you, it's on me." He further vowed, "Listen to this: That will never happen again. That will never happen again."

"That," of course, refers to Rubio's bafflingly repetitive claims about Barack Obama in the last big debate before this crucial primary.

What was up with that?

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Rubio might have panicked under Chris Christie's harsh interrogation (which didn't seem to do the New Jersey governor any favors either). But the line of criticism Rubio was advancing wasn't random or accidental. It actually gets to two important debates within the Republican Party.

You could say Rubio knew what he was doing.

First, there has been an argument among conservatives since at least the beginning of the Obama administration whether what they perceive as the president's bad policies stem from incompetence or a deliberate desire to transform — some would say destroy — America.

Rubio is squarely in the Obama-is-transforming-America camp. In this telling, the president subscribes to a form of liberalism that rejects American exceptionalism. He is more comfortable and ideologically congenial with the social democratic traditions of some of our European allies, as well as their more secular cultures. Conservatives who interpret Obama's motives in this way say he wants America to be more like Europe.

As a standard part of his campaign stump speech, Rubio says that Obama's foreign policy is driven in part by his view of America as an "arrogant empire" that needs to be taken down a peg. Like Mitt Romney, he worries that Obama is too eager to apologize for the country's real and imagined sins.

Lots of other conservatives believe this too, which is why Rush Limbaugh and others defended Rubio's debate line (which may have delayed the candidate's realization of how bad that part of the debate was for him).

So that's one part of this dust-up. But it's not the most important part.

Michael Dukakis unsuccessfully argued that the 1988 presidential election should be about competence, not ideology. While it's hardly a foregone conclusion that he would have won an election based on competence, he definitely lost one that partly became a referendum on his ideological views.

The 2016 Republicans are repeating Dukakis' argument among themselves. Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Christie all staked their presidential bids on their executive experience — Trump in business, the rest in state governorships. Their managerial ability, they have claimed, is what would make them a better president than Obama and a better president than the senators they are running against.

Rubio has been particularly tied to Obama in terms of management experience, because they were both eloquent freshman senators who appealed to their respective parties' voters through their oratorical skills and personal magnetism. But in both cases, it could be argued that they climbed the ladder to progressively more important political positions without spending very long in any of them.

Both Cruz and Rubio are running on ideology more than management skills, but the Obama comparison has made it especially important for Rubio to rebut this criticism. Consequently, he argues that Obama is a bad president because he believes in a bad ideology, not because he was elected as a freshman senator. Rubio would be a good president despite being a freshman senator precisely because he believes in a good ideology.

These arguments are all somewhat self-serving. Naturally, politicians like any job applicants want to say the top lines on their resume are the most important qualifications. A highly competent executive whose ideology led him to regularly pursue policies that didn't work would fail; an incompetent executive would probably make a bad president even if he or she had some great policy ideas.

In a real sense, the Republican presidential field is debating whether Obama knows what he's doing — and whether Rubio does either.

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