Yesterday I saw a post at Mediaite comparing this to an Abbott & Costello routine, forgot about it, then thought of it instantly when I got around to watching the clip this morning. It’s thisclose to “Who’s on first?” And it’s a rare case of Rubio, one of the nimblest interviewees in the GOP, digging in on a lame answer. They spend three minutes here essentially debating what the meaning of “is” is. Was Iraq a mistake, asks Wallace? Iraq was not a mistake based on the intelligence Bush 43 had, counters Rubio. Right, says Wallace, but I’m asking whether Iraq was a mistake in hindsight. Has it proved to be a mistake? It wasn’t a mistake when Bush ordered the invasion, replies Rubio. Right right right, I get that, says Wallace. But what about now? After everything that’s happened over the past 12 years, is it safe to say it was a mistake to have undertaken this nation-building project? It wasn’t a mistake given the WMD data that Bush had, says Rubio. Third base!

What Wallace is really asking is “Was the Iraq war worth fighting notwithstanding the bad intel on chemical weapons?” Did we gain enough from knocking out Saddam and building an Arab democracy that we can now say it was worth doing even though the risk from WMD wasn’t what we thought it was? That’s not a gotcha question, especially to a candidate who’s positioned himself as the neoconservative champion in the field. Candidate Rubio’s said that the world is a better place without Saddam. Is it so much better that President Rubio might launch a ground invasion to remove a similarly nasty character in power somewhere who threatens U.S. interests, as part of a new “freedom agenda”? And the weird thing is, despite his dogged refusal to use the M-word, Rubio basically does answer that important question. At one point he says that neither he nor Dubya would have used force absent that faulty WMD intelligence, that Saddam would have been dealt with eventually through a different “process.” Translation: The world may be better off without Saddam but not quite better off enough, a fair conclusion given the news today about ISIS overrunning Ramadi and Shiite death squads en route to confront them. But he won’t say “mistake” and Wallace won’t let him not say “mistake.” How come?

For Wallace, I guess, it’s a simple case of going after a pol when you see that a question’s made him uncomfortable. For Rubio, it’s probably a combo of not wanting to alienate the GOP’s super-hawks any more than is absolutely necessary — and at this stage of evolving public opinion on Iraq, admitting that you wouldn’t have invaded without the WMD intel is absolutely necessary — plus wanting to shape expectations for how much blame a hawkish Republican would-be president should bear when a military intervention goes bad. President Rubio will be doing plenty of intervening himself, no doubt, and some of those interventions are bound to turn sour. When they do, he can point back to this answer as evidence of consistency. I’ve always believed, he’ll say, that the touchstone for whether any operation is a “mistake” is what the president knew when he ordered it, period. No Monday-morning quarterbacking. Super-hawk voters will appreciate that.

Like I say, though, he had a better answer available if he wanted it. Sure, he could have said, the war was a mistake in hindsight because we naively assumed Bush’s Democratic successor would finish what he’d started with nation-building in Iraq. If Obama had insisted on a residual force of U.S. troops, if he’d been quicker to pull the trapdoor on the ruinous Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq might be relatively stable and ISIS-free today. As it is, the country’s falling apart. In hindsight, it was a mistake for Republicans to launch a war whose successful conclusion might eventually be entrusted to Barack Obama. How come he didn’t give that answer?