I keep running across people on Twitter, mostly Rubio fans, making this claim and I can’t figure it out. One iteration is that Rubio committed the same sort of campaign “murder-suicide” as Chris Christie did at the New Hampshire debate, grievously wounding another candidate but destroying his own chances in the process. Okay, but … how exactly did Rubio’s Don Rickles shtick about his bankruptcies, his spray tan, the size of his hands, and so forth grievously wound Trump? There’s a correlation between Rubio beginning to attack him late last month and Trump beginning to underperform, losing a few states more than expected on Super Tuesday and then having his worst day of the primaries this past Saturday, but no one seems able to explain the supposed causation. Rubio made fun of Trump’s fan and therefore a bunch of voters … decided they no longer like Trump? Does that make any sense to anyone? Is there a shred of poll data anywhere to support it?
Let’s approach the question this way: What was the insult-comic routine supposed to achieve for Rubio? One goal, obviously, was to cut in on Trump’s domination of the media by giving the media a shiny new object to cover. And it worked! Rubio’s rallies did start getting picked up more frequently by Fox and CNN. If the point was to try to marginalize Cruz by reframing the race as a nasty street fight between Trump and Rubio, that was a fine strategy. Another goal was to show that Rubio is an alpha male, willing and able to stand up to Trump after ducking him for most of the campaign. It was reasonable for his team to conclude, I think, that Rubio was seen by voters as too boyish and passive and that his candidacy needed a spark. Punching Trump in the face was one way to scramble that imagine. The larger goal, though, which these two individual goals were designed to serve, was obviously to rally conservatives to Rubio’s side as the true choice in the race for Anti-Trumpers. It’s not that the insults were supposed to wound Trump, it was that they were supposed to elevate Rubio past Cruz as the right’s champion against the bully.
And … that strategy failed dismally. It was Cruz, not Rubio, who had a terrific night on Saturday after many Rubio fans across several states abandoned their guy and switched to him. Trump, meanwhile, didn’t perform noticeably worse than he was projected to perform, undercutting the “murder-suicide” hypothesis. Fast-forward three days and we’re staring at another round of primaries where Trump and Cruz are expected to battle for dominance, with John Kasich more likely to threaten in Michigan than Rubio is. Even some of Rubio’s own supporters, and would-be supporters, have written off the insult routine as a failure:
“Super Tuesday came and Rubio didn’t do as well as some of us hoped. So people are saying, ‘Let’s see how this thing shakes out,'” said Craig Duchossois, who contributed $500,000 last year to a group that backed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush…
Duchossois and others who pinned their hopes to him said they were turned off by Rubio’s taunts, including calling Trump’s “the worst spray tan in America” and equating Trump’s disproportionately small hands with his manhood.
“You just don’t do that,” said Bill Kunkler, another Chicago Republican who backed Bush but stopped short of the pivot to Rubio. “In Rubio, I don’t see the presidential gravitas.”
Meanwhile, at WaPo:
One prominent Rubio supporter, an elected official and spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment candidly, told The Washington Post that he now doubts that Rubio can win and is privately preparing to support Cruz should the race narrow. He said Rubio’s recent decision to go hard in attacking Trump does not seem to have helped him.
We can speculate who that elected official might be. Do note that a different WaPo story yesterday mentioned that Sen. Tim Scott, who backed Rubio before South Carolina, said last week that he preferred attacks that stuck to policy over schoolyard insults. Which makes sense: Who the hell backs Marco Rubio because they’re a fan of Trump-style ad hominems towards political opponents? If you’re a Rubio fan, odds are it’s because of the “Bambi effect,” the idea that Marco is a bit sunnier, a bit more soft-spoken than bombthrowers like Cruz and is going to somehow restore a sense of optimism to America. He makes you feel good about supporting him. He’s the “noble” choice! Suddenly you look up one day and he’s out there making dick jokes about Trump. W-w-what?
Rubio does deserve credit for helping to introduce Trump University into the media’s bloodstream — if anything he’s said over the past few weeks has damaged Trump, I’d bet that’s it — but he could have gotten that message out without the accompanying insults, starting with pushing it at the debates and reinforcing it with aggressive ad buys. As it is, to the extent that Rubio fans are clinging to this idea that the insults worked, I think that’s mostly rationalizing on their part. They cheered the insults because it felt goooood to watch someone finally kick Trump in the teeth, and now, having cheered it, they feel obliged to justify it as having succeeded somehow. And the “murder-suicide” theory, I think, goes back to the “Bambi effect”: Because they view Rubio as somehow more noble than garden-variety politicians, there’s an impulse to believe that he nobly sacrificed himself for the greater good in doing this. His candidacy may be all but dead — but so is Trump’s, supposedly, thanks to Rubio mocking his spray tan. Rubio 2016 died a hero! In reality, if the insults helped stop Trump, they probably did so only by ruining Rubio’s chances so thoroughly that Cruz was finally able to consolidate conservative votes. And Rubio could have accomplished that simply by dropping out and endorsing Cruz in the first place.
But the impetus to believe this will go on. I’ve even had Rubio fans on Twitter tell me that the insults got in Trump’s head and threw him “off-message.” Off-message? What message? Insults are Trump’s message. And as I said a few paragraphs up, Trump didn’t underperform on Saturday. His attacks on “Lyin’ Ted” are still going and still working well enough for him to win multiple states, even with some of Rubio’s fans switching to Cruz. Safe bet: When Rubio runs for governor in 2018, the supposedly successful Don Rickles gambit will be left on the cutting-room floor and he’ll stick scrupulously to policy attacks on his Democratic opponent. We’ll see.