Media

Updated — Marco and the Media: The Boy Who Would be King

How the press is helping Marco Rubio bounce back after his fifth place finish in New Hampshire and a debate fiasco

Updated — Marco and the Media: The [...]

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) poses for photographs during a campaign town hall meeting at the Sun City Hilton Head's Magnolia Hall February 11, 2016 in Okatie, South Carolina. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

So here is how you play the media like an accordion. First, you deliver a debate performance so notably bad, so mechanical and unthinking, that you have everyone buzzing about it, even those in the media who gush over you. Then you take responsibility for being awful because, after all, you don’t want to give the impression that you might not really be responsible for uttering the words you uttered – four times.

Then you invite a bunch of reporters on your campaign plane to show what a personable fellow Marco Rubio is, how unrehearsed and natural, and they take the bait, basically writing mash notes about how unrehearsed and natural you are. Note Sean Sullivan of The Washington Post: “His hour-long charter flight interview also did not begin with an emphasis on his ‘new American century’ theme, as is often the case. Instead, it started with Twix bars: Rubio wanted to demonstrate how cold and hard they were after explaining at breakfast that he had cracked a molar biting into one.” What a normal, unrobotic guy!

And then the piece de resistance. You don’t repeat yourself mindlessly at the next debate. You give exactly the same kind of debate performance you gave before Gov. Chris Christie called you out, sounding like a polished kid in a high school debate club. And guess what? Surprise of surprises, the media declare you the winner because you didn’t make the same idiotic mistake you made the last time out. Chris Cillizza of the Post found him “thoughtful, nuanced and convincing.” (Whatever else one might say about them, nuanced is about the last thing any of these Republicans is.) The reliable Republican booster, Jennifer Rubin, in the same paper called his performance a “strong comeback.” CNN: “Rubio turned in a notably better performance than he did the last time.” Charles Krauthammer: “I think he was number one, Rubio.” And, best of all, from the Washington Examiner: “The narrative coming out of this debate will be about Rubio redeeming himself.”

Exactly. The narrative the press comes away with – the narrative they just happen to be writing — is that Rubio is back. But, let’s face it. He isn’t back because he was so brilliant last Saturday night, wielding some sort of rapier wit or intellectual superiority or a plethora of ideas. The New York Times, which hasn’t had much of a Rubio crush, save for a small post-Iowa lapse, found him lackluster. No. He’s back because the media desperately need him to come back to save the Republic from Trump and Cruz. The media, who are usually just content to stir up some trouble so that they can cover it, have got a horse in this race, and they are going to keep whipping him to the finish line, even after he stumbles.

It’s enough to give you whiplash. Two weeks ago, the media cheered Marco Rubio’s third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses – yes, third place – as a stunning victory. On Tuesday, NBC Nightly News declared “Rubio Rising.” Before the Iowa vote, The New York Times reported, “A Resurgent Marco Rubio Sprints to the Finish in Iowa” and then, after the vote, bannered, “Marco Rubio Sees Bounce in Latest New Hampshire Poll.”

Two days later it ran an idolatrous piece (that aforementioned lapse) which would turn into a major goof considering what was to come: “Once Cautious in Campaign, Rubio Shows More of His Personal Side.” The AP also gushed: “Rubio Could See Fortunes Rise From Iowa Finish.” “Rubio Soars,” wrote Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin. CNN’s Alex Conant explained, “Why Marco Rubio is the Real Winner.” Bill O’Reilly declared “Rubio a big winner.” Did I mention he finished third with 23% of the vote?

Then came New Hampshire, where Rubio finished fifth behind even the political zombie Jeb Bush, prompting Nick Baumann of The Huffington Post to crack sarcastically: “Marco Rubio Was the Real Winner of the New Hampshire Primary.” And now? He’s baaaack

Before we get to the debate debacle in which New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie eviscerated Rubio and derailed his candidacy (at least temporarily), you have to understand why the media seem to love Rubio, and why they were willing to elevate him to frontrunner status when he was barely registering in the polls they so worship, not only because it helps explain Rubio but also because it helps explain the media.

It was back in February 2013 that TIME magazine ran its now-famous cover of Rubio, staring confidently into the camera, with “The Republican Savior” slathered over him in big yellow letters. Here is how Michael Grunwald’s article began:

“Oriales Garcia Rubio knows how it feels to want more. When she was a girl in central Cuba in the 1930s, her family of nine lived in a one-room house with a dirt floor. Her dolls were Coke bottles dressed in rags. She dreamed of becoming an actress. Instead she married a security guard, moved with him to the U.S. and found work as a hotel maid. Her husband got a job as a bartender while starting a series of failed businesses – a vegetable stand, a dry cleaner, a grocery. They never had much. But their house had a real floor. Their daughters had real dolls. They sent all four of their children to college to chase their own dreams.”

No, that’s not a Rubio press release. That was actually written by a journalist. But you can see the appeal. It is a stirring if somewhat stale narrative, and the media are narratively driven. It panders to American exceptionalism, and the media are, after all, in the pandering business. And it turns Rubio into a star, and the media are into the star making.

None of this would matter, of course, if Rubio didn’t also have the aesthetic desiderata the media adore. Despite the saying that politics is show business for ugly people, the media recognize the role of aesthetics. Mitt Romney based his entire political career on them. Rubio was young, which meant he was new – an iPhone 6 in an iPhone 5 business. He had “boyish good looks” according to Grunwald. He knew how to give a good speech – “a compelling speaker,” said Grunwald. He was Hispanic in a party that had pretty much disdained Hispanics even though that demographic was expanding. And he had seemed to strike a balance between idealism and pragmatism – between the aspirational, as pundits like to call it, and the political.

In short, he was a designer candidate – practically hand-tooled to fill the holes in the Republican demographic, which is why he was allowed to jump the line to get to the presidency.

And then there was the symmetry. Rubio is often called the GOP’s Barack Obama, given their ages and the fact that both were first-term senators at the time of their candidacies. They each have minority status, they delivered well-received keynote speeches at their party conventions, and they were ambitious enough not to wait their turn. (Of course the dissimilarities are far more striking.)

The mainstream media love this sort of symmetry – Rubio is Obama, Sanders is Trump, the Clintons are the Bushes — presumably because it allows them to appear balanced and thus defend themselves from the bias flak they invariably take. It is the Newton’s Law of political coverage that for every action in one party, there is an equal and opposite reaction in the other, though these are usually false equivalencies that have served to make the Republican Party seem more rational than it really is. Denial of climate change? Well, Democrats want to stop coal-burning plants. So there!

For Rubio, symmetry had another advantage besides making him seem less extremist. It made him the youthful idealist of the party, its unifier, and blessed him with a sense of Obama-like inevitability.

And  that was before the 2016 race began to unfold. No one suspected in the early going that Donald Trump, a kind of novelty candidate, would actually gain traction, much less become a serious contender. And though the media knew that Cruz would have a formidable advantage in his evangelical base, no one took him seriously as the actual nominee for the simple reason that just about everyone in the party except the extremist rank and file hated him.

Rubio’s only real competitor for what pundits call the “moderate lane” way back in the fall was Jeb Bush, and he was a tired one at that. Once the race began, however, and Trump and Cruz attracted their constituencies, while Jeb foundered, the Florida senator became not only the Chosen One but also the Great Hispanic Hope who, we are told endlessly, is the candidate who can and must stop Trump and Cruz from getting the nomination. Among party stalwarts, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight has him with a commanding lead in the endorsement poll.

It is certainly no coincidence that the media, who loathed Trump and didn’t like Cruz much either, saw Rubio as their kind of candidate, too. That is precisely the argument New York Times’ columnist Ross Douthat made back in October when he predicted Rubio would be the GOP nominee. The party had no choice, he wrote, since it couldn’t possibly nominate Trump (or Carson back then) and Cruz had that likeability problem. And don’t forget this when you consider why Rubio is such a media favorite: whereas Trump and Cruz don’t need the media, Rubio needs them desperately. With his thin resume, they give him credibility. The media enjoy that power. They like being kingmakers, or even savior-makers.

The new narrative of the campaign season, then, was that Trump might pull in the “angries” and Cruz the “crazies,” but that one establishment candidate would emerge to stop them and that Rubio was the most likely to do so, which is why he got such an outpouring of media attention after Iowa. Not incidentally, this also plays into one of the few demonstrable media biases. The mainstream press likes moderates, or at least those they perceive to be moderates, much better than it likes extremists or alleged extremists. Presumably it fits the press’s self-image both as objective observers and as national stewards, gently guiding the country away from the fringes. Rubio is not a moderate by any means. In fact, he brags that he is the most conservative candidate in the race, and he might not be far off. But in this field, the media have apparently decided he is one because, again, they may feel they have no other choice.

So there it was – Trump bloviating toward a New Hampshire victory, Cruz lazing his way through the state on his way to Super Tuesday and the South, and Rubio, the fair-haired boy, needing only a second or third-place finish to set the media hearts aflutter. What happened last Saturday night at the Republican debate, with Chris Christie’s perfectly timed attack on Rubio’s authenticity, suddenly changed all that.

We know now that Rubio committed a huge gaffe by repeating verbatim four times a little speech about Obama deliberately changing America, just as Christie was accusing him of repeating the same rote speeches again and again and again. (It is worth mentioning, since no one seems to have done so, that the substance of Rubio’s charge of Obama being the first president to change the country, which should have been the object of obloquy, is both idiotic and just plain wrong.) But the problem really wasn’t that Rubio was on autopilot. He had been on autopilot throughout the entire campaign. Indeed, Rubio had often been praised by the media for the very thing Christie called him out on. Rubio had “got his message locked down,” according to one reporter. He was “well-spoken” and “articulate” – a “great debater.” In debate after debate, in which he recited his talking points mechanically without any hesitation or evident ratiocination, the pundits declared him a winner.

What voters didn’t seem to know, and what they certainly weren’t told by the media, is that whenever Rubio appeared, he was regurgitating what he had memorized. If you do a Lexis-Nexis search of the terms “Rubio” and “robot” in major newspapers from January 1 through February 6, here is what you will find: Not once was the term “robot” or “robotic” applied to him.

Political reporter Jason Zengerle of GQ explained why. “Want to know a dirty little secret about political journalists?” he wrote on his blog after the debate. “A lot of the time, we don’t pay attention to the speeches of the politicians we cover.”

SIMPSONVILLE, SC - FEBRUARY 11: Students and their family members and guests listen to Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) during a campaign town hall meeting at the February 11, 2016 in Simpsonville, South Carolina. Earlier in the week Rubio placed fifth in the New Hampshire primary, behind fellow GOP candidates Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Donald Trump, who won with 35 percent of the vote. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Students and their family members and guests listen to Republican presidential candidate Sen. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Yes, they all heard Rubio saying the same things over and over. The father/bartender story, the mother/K-Mart story, the American Dream stuff, etc. etc., etc. – all canned. And, Zengerle goes on: “Even Rubio’s jokes are canned. And Rubio doesn’t merely confine these lines to his stump speech. They unerringly show up in debates and his answers to voters’ questions, as well. In fact, when The New York Times recently published a story about Rubio’s supposedly `intimate—and increasingly improvised—glimpses’ into his life in response to voters’ questions [the story cited earlier], at least two of the examples buttressing this dubious claim were well-worn passages from his stump speech.”

So, many in the press knew. They knew what Christie knew. They knew Rubio wouldn’t, couldn’t, deviate from the script. Why didn’t they tell us? Because they didn’t much care, even if Rubio continuously crossed the line from repetitive to rehearsed to robotic. What’s more, they didn’t think the voters would care either.

Again, Zengerle of Christie’s criticisms: “It was hard to imagine them striking a chord with voters.” Even after Rubio’s Teddy Ruxpin performance, Byron York of the Washington Examiner wrote that the press coverage of Rubio’s debate flub “showed again how the concerns of the media commentators are sometimes far from the minds of the actual voters.” And, York didn’t seem to realize, sometimes they aren’t. The press couldn’t imagine that voters might actually want candidates who were thoughtful and authentic and intellectually nimble.

What the MSM did not think worthy of reporting, however, the blogosphere did report. (In fairness, one local New Hampshire reporter, Erik Eisele of The Conway Daily Sun, wrote on December 23, after spending twenty minutes with Rubio for an editorial interview, that “it was like someone wound him up, pointed him towards the doors, and pushed play.”) Go back into the Twitter-sphere – way back to last year – and you’ll find hundreds if not thousands of tweets talking specifically about Rubio’s repetitions, about his canned speeches, about his avoiding answering press questions, about his obsession with his talking points. The tweeters knew, many of them, because they had seen him doing it during the debates – the very same debate performances the media lauded. And when Christie, who may very well have been following the lead of the Twitter-sphere, lunged, Twitter erupted. (An argument actually ensued over whether Marcobot was a better moniker for Rubio than Rubiobot.) It took Christie to do the work the media should have been doing. But it probably took the blogosphere and social media to poke Christie.

And then, and only then, the media pounced, not because they observed something they hadn’t previously seen, but because, I guess, they didn’t want to be left behind by the social media. (It is hard to keep a tally of how many YouTube views of the Rubio repetitions there have been; I lost count at about two million.) Thus did Rubio’s standard operating procedure become his Howard Dean Scream or his Rick Perry Brain Freeze.

But there were differences between his gaffe and theirs, not the least being that Rubio’s was not an aberration; it was his campaign. The media didn’t need any prompting to humiliate and ultimately destroy Dean and Perry because the media didn’t particularly like them. Dean’s media narrative was that he was a lucky, somewhat daffy, beneficiary of a leftish tilt in the Democratic Party after the Iraq War, and Perry’s was that he was a dunce. Their actions only confirmed the pre-existing narratives, and the media were only too happy to amplify their missteps in print and on the air. (When you come right down to it, Dean’s exuberance, which turned out to be a mic problem not a candidate problem, or Perry’s forgetfulness really weren’t much of anything, except for confirming the media narrative.)

On the other hand, the media liked Rubio. They were the ones who had helped propel him. They didn’t want to pile on. But when Christie underlined Rubio’s mindless parroting, he not only struck at one of the struts of Rubio’s alleged strength – that well-spokenness – and made him look foolish, he made the media look foolish, too. Rubio turned out to be a confirmation of exactly what Christie had said he was – a “student council president,” an empty suit, a face-man. As Ross Douthat, who had predicted Rubio’s eventual victory, tweeted that debate night: “I’ve watched Rubio for a long time, always thought that critiques of him as a talking points robot were way overblown. But oh dear.”

You might have thought Rubio would be finished. And If Marcobot had become a meme, like the Scream or the Brain Freeze, he would indeed have become political toast. Now we know that is not going to happen. The only story the media like better than burying a candidate is resurrecting one, and Rubio had already been anointed the savior. What’s more, the GOP establishment and the media still need their unifier, the hero to oppose the villains Trump and Cruz, and there aren’t too many candidates left from whom to choose, only Rubio, Bush and Kasich. And Rubio, for his part, has a Dracula candidacy. You get the feeling you’ll have to put a stake through its heart to stop it.

Trying to save himself, Rubio was contrite on election night in New Hampshire. He said he accepted responsibility for what had happened and promised he wouldn’t do it again, though exactly what that meant was hard to parse. Of course, he was responsible. Who else could be? And what wouldn’t he do again? Repeat himself word for word four times while he was being told he kept repeating himself? But no sooner had Rubio issued his mea culpa than Van Jones, one of CNN’s talking heads, pronounced himself impressed, and said it “took a lot of character” for Rubio to do what he had done. Later that week, on the PBS NewsHour, Mark Shields said the same thing. He actually praised Rubio for taking responsibility.

So the rehabilitation had begun almost as soon as the New Hampshire debate ended, and it was pre-ordained that as soon as the South Carolina debate ended, the media would announce that Rubio is back on the ascent — a self-fulfilling prophecy, if ever there was one. After all, the media were the ones writing the script. It is going to take a lot more than self-inflicted wounds to fell this candidacy. It is going to take an objective media. Good luck with that.

Neal Gabler

Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two LA Times Book Prizes, Time magazine's non-fiction book of the year, USA Today's biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.