Marco Rubio and the simple politics of a sense of humor

posted at 9:31 pm on February 20, 2013 by Mary Katharine Ham

The water bottle goes global.

Netanyahu Rubio

This is the way Republicans must learn to do battle, with a wink, and a social IQ, and a sense of humor. The media will never treat Rubio with anything near the deference they treat President Obama, and he knows it. Sometimes there’s no sense in wishing for a media that doesn’t exist. Stamping his feet about the terrible unfairness of his “career-ender” being shown on loop 200 times in a day would have done Rubio absolutely no good, even though the sentiment would certainly have been justified. It is indeed very hard to imagine a political press frenzy being any dumber (but just wait for 2016!).

But Rubio has been poking fun at himself for a week and a half, and the “career-ender” has been effectively neutralized. He let the rest of us rage about the stupidity of it, and that’s fine. We can handle that bit, and sometimes it’s better to delegate.

It sounds incredibly silly to even analyze how he did it, but this is the media and cultural environment we live in. The memeification of politics will only get more hostile to Republicans and conservatives if they don’t learn when and how to play along.

First, Rubio noticed a forming meme when he saw it. Shortly after his SOTU response, and his horrifically embarrassing sip of water, he and his staff had already figured out it was destined to be a “thing.” He tweeted a picture of the Poland Springs bottle destined to get so much airtime. Next, he embraced his new claim to social-media fame by ostentatiously drinking from a bottle of water on his morning news show appearances after the SOTU response.

Today, a picture of his water-bottle bump with Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu went crazy on Twitter, worldwide. And, thus, “career-ending” blooper in the SOTU response becomes a shared joke, which then becomes a light-hearted moment with an international leader. Message: Yes, I drink water, and I also have a sense of humor, and by the way, I’m an internationally recognized political leader demonstrably very friendly with our most important allies, unlike someone else I know. And, aren’t all the people who think drinking from a bottle of water is a “career-ender” blowhards? Let’s all laugh at that together.

On one hand, it all seems pretty obvious, but it must not be because there’s a distinct dearth of people on our side who can do it. There are some who will say Rubio is feeding the beast, that submitting to a Buzzfeed interview, for instance, perpetuates the problem. There are some who say even thinking about the likeability factor is a betrayal of policy and intellect. But this is politics. Going through the pop-culture wringer and coming out the other side looking like someone people might like to know is a huge part of the battle.

There are times to rage and there are times to joke, and Rubio seems to know when to do what. He should teach a few classes.

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