Sen. Marco Rubio, in Dylan Matthews's words, turned briefly into a "malfunctioning robot" during Saturday night's debate. For anyone who hasn't seen it, Rubio repeated the same phrase four times, once in response to Chris Christie's accusation that Rubio couldn't deviate from his prepared script. You can't make this stuff up.
This kind of thing is made for Sunday morning talk show dissection, and it called up immediate comparisons to some significant primary campaign gaffes from the recent past. One point of comparison was Howard Dean's infamous scream during his speech after a disappointing finish at the 2004 Iowa caucuses. The other is Rick Perry's utterance of a simple "oops" after being unable to name the third of three agencies he promised to cut — this, like Rubio's moment, happened during a debate. Both candidacies ended shortly after these errors. Are these useful comparisons for the Rubio meltdown?
One thing to keep in mind is that the timing is different. Dean's highly unscripted moment came after he underperformed, relative to expectations, in Iowa — the opposite of Rubio's Iowa finish last week. Perry's debate gaffe occurred in November 2011, during the period when the candidates are evaluated and winnowed on the basis of whether they can compete at the necessary level. Rubio's relatively solid standing in the polls and strength in the endorsement race suggests that he's already cleared that hurdle.
Whether Rubio could move back a level as a result of this gaffe also seems related to the structure of his support. Put simply, Rubio pulled ahead in endorsements last week. In polls, he's second or third, depending on where you look. My assessment going into Saturday's debate was that Rubio needed to show that he could do well with voters — elites appeared convinced.
It's not clear how Saturday's debate maps onto this support gap. It seems probable that elites cared more about #RobotRubio than voters do, although hard evidence for this remains to be seen. Elites indeed do appear to be unimpressed — but where might endorsements go now? Party elites seem to remain somewhat wary of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. Christie hasn't taken off with voters, despite having pretty strong endorsement support through 2015, and it's not clear what would change that, or that he will be a viable candidate in, say, South Carolina.
In sum, Rubio needs to close the elite-voter gap — and he may have done that by hurting his credibility with the media and party leaders rather than improving it among rank-and-file Republicans. But the alternatives for elites remain unclear.
Beyond the timing and the unique structure of candidate competition in the 2016 race, there are two other ways in which Rubio's gaffe differs from most other famous campaign missteps. The first is that it was so bizarre. The phrases were repeated so exactly, and with the same inflection — I thought at first that there was a glitch in the station's feed, and I wasn't alone in this impression. One of the jokes about gaffes is that they are "when politicians accidentally tell the truth." That's not quite applicable here. Maybe Rubio revealed a true inability to speak extemporaneously, which certainly seems to be the dominant elite interpretation. But otherwise it's hard to put this particular gaffe in a category with others, because it was just so strange to watch.
Presidential politics is no place for deviation from a narrow norm. And this is where the expansive reaction to the debate gets into some touchy topics. As Dave Hopkins points out, "The tone and volume of the media coverage might lead one to believe that he showed up drunk, kicked over his podium, and screamed that the Old Man of the Mountain got what was coming to him."* I think this is a fair assessment; when he wasn't having a robot glitch, Rubio had some good moments. He offered a nuanced and cogent explanation of his position on abortion. He talked up bipartisan efforts.
Christie's attack on Rubio during the debate fit into a larger theme about whether the Florida senator has the experience and the political chops to be president. When we're thinking about who looks and sounds presidential, it's hard not to notice Rubio is a young, Latino Catholic running for an office that has up until now been held almost exclusively by older, white Protestants.
The shape of Rubio's candidacy also became apparent in some earlier debates, when his student debt came up as a topic for discussion. Like many Americans, Rubio has struggled with these issues, and does not come from an elite political family. Whatever we may think of Rubio's character and political views, these factors alone should cast doubt on the "empty suit" narrative.
The comparison that hasn't come up much since Saturday is with George W. Bush, who wasn't known for his ability to meander flawlessly off script, and who had plenty of "oops" moments during the 2000 campaign. Certainly, people questioned whether Bush had what it took to be "presidential." But party elites and primary voters flocked to him anyway. When we think about how verbal gaffes influence perceptions of who's qualified, we should keep in mind that all politicians make big and small mistakes. But our narrow images of the presidency mean that not all politicians pay an equal price for their errors.
*Hey, Dave, I thought we agreed that what happens at Midwest stays at Midwest.