Via the Examiner, I’d call this a case study in effective damage control but that presupposes that an unscripted sip of water during a speech constitutes “damage,” and I can’t bring myself to believe that our frivolous political culture has yet reached that depth. There are three things going on in the media frenzy over this. First, Karl’s right, of course:
Hyperventilating over an awkward moment in a good speech is a way to cast a pall of ridiculousness over the whole thing. Rubio’s biggest political talent is his communication skills, the proof of which you’re seeing this morning in his sustained effort to win over people by laughing along at the water meme. If you’re eager to neutralize those skills by building a larger not-ready-for-prime-time narrative, then yeah, frenetic mockery of a sip of water will come naturally to you.
But it’s not just lefty media that’s interested in this. Stephanopoulos saved a question about the water until the end of his interview with Rubio this morning but Fox & Friends started off with it. Why? This is spot on, I think:
Honestly, the FREAKOUT over the water-bottle thing, like the Super Bowl blackout, shows a ravenous appetite for ANYTHING unchoreographed.
— Linda Holmes Thinks You're Doing Great (@lindaholmes) February 13, 2013
Yup. The more ubiquitous media becomes, the more inured the average viewer becomes to the conventions of polished media presentations, which gives every rare unscripted moment a charge of daring and excitement. We’re reaching the point where, if a curl of hair had fallen down onto Rubio’s forehead during the speech and he’d brushed it back with his hand, that would be a meme today. So programmatic is modern politics with talking points and messaging that taking a sip of water when your mouth is dry practically qualifies as a “gaffe.” It’s soul-crushing, which partly explains why a guy like Christie who often does seem to wander off script can be so captivating.
Finally, some of the reaction here is due simply to the tedium of the endless Obama/GOP ideological death struggle. You’ve got a huge chunk of low-information voters watching and tweeting during the SOTU; they don’t follow politics day to day so it’s hard for them to gauge which side’s lying and which is telling the truth, but everyone can have an opinion about whether Rubio looked goofy reaching for that Poland Springs. Political professionals, meanwhile, have heard it all before. As noted last night, even Obama’s media fanboys were expecting a rote, forgettable recitation of the White House’s policy wishlist; conservatives were more upbeat about Rubio’s big debut but no one on our side was surprised by his message either. When political junkies get bored, they’re going to look for a shiny object to play with, replete with all the same dumb, predictable jokes you know and hate. Somehow, drinking water has now achieved shiny-object status.
Update: If you think Karl and I are exaggerating on the first point, read this.