Breaking the Spell

Repetition can be effective. The recent death of Glenn Fry – the founder and driving force behind the Eagles, the iconic rock band from the seventies, one more product of Laurel Canyon up the street here – had everyone playing the Eagles’ biggest hit, Hotel California – six and a half minutes of a simple melody that never changes over a simple figured base that also never changes at all. It’s hypnotic. It’s meant to be. The musical form is called a canon – it’s been around since the Middle Ages, not that these guys knew that. They just wanted to cast a spell.

Repetition does that, or it doesn’t. Ravel’s Boléro may be his most famous composition but he knew it was garbage – it had “no form, properly speaking, no development, no or almost no modulation” – he had actually predicted that most orchestras would refuse to play it. At the premiere performance, a woman was heard shouting that Ravel was mad. Ravel is said to have dryly commented that she had actually understood the piece. No one has ever confirmed that he actually said that, but he knew the same thing, over and over, louder and louder, was no more than just the same thing – it was nothing much. The success of the piece puzzled him, and the less said about Phillip Glass the better. Listen to a bit of him – it’s always a long strange trip to nowhere in particular. Repetition must be handled carefully.

Politicians should know this. They say the same thing over and over, hoping to cast a spell. Hey, no one ever put it that way before! Say it again! Yes we can! Make America great again! A chicken in every pot! Let’s take our country back! You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave!

No, wait – that last one was the Eagles. One must not veer into nonsense, but that’s the problem. There’s casting a spell, and then there’s saying the same thing over and over, louder and louder, on a long strange trip to nowhere in particular – the way most people see most politicians, actually. They just say stuff.

They have to. Running for office is a tricky business, and the Republicans seem to have just had a meta-debate about which words are empty and which are full of deep meaning. Chris Christie attacked Marco Rubio for offering Boléro not Hotel California. That was the big story from the weekend’s New Hampshire debate. Brian Beutler called it a panic-inducing night for the GOP establishment:

The Republican establishment’s fondest hope before Saturday night’s debate was that Marco Rubio would deliver yet another solid (if unmemorable) debate performance, and that Donald Trump would fall on his face -compounding the damage he suffered in Iowa, and surrendering more, if not all, of his lead in New Hampshire over to Rubio, who’s in second place and climbing.

Instead, the establishment got almost exactly the opposite.

The single biggest spoiler wasn’t Trump, or even Ted Cruz, but New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who – let’s not euphemize – humiliated Rubio in an exchange about Rubio’s dearth of experience and accomplishments. Christie became the first Republican presidential candidate this cycle to weaponize Rubio’s grating habit of pivoting to relevant portions of his stump speech rather than answering the questions posed to him.

Repetition must be handled carefully:

“I want the people at home to think about this,” Christie said. “That’s what Washington, D.C. does. The drive-by shot at the beginning with incorrect and incomplete information, and then the memorized 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him.”

Rubio responded to Christie by proving his point, pivoting not just to a portion of his stump speech, but the exact same portion of the stump speech he had just recited.

“There it is,” Christie gloated. “There it is. The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody.”

Then Rubio did it again. When he repeated the same lines, nearly verbatim, a fourth time – “Let’s dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing” – the audience booed him.

Rubio had said that in countless stump speech to polite and sometimes enthusiastic applause, but there was no applause, and he himself was stumped:

The exchange left Rubio rattled, and his tone halting. He stammered through a comment about North Korea launching a long-range missile, and didn’t find his footing again (confidently, but forgettably repeating more stump-speech snippets) until the debate’s second half. By then, it was too late.

Even Donald Trump knows better:

Trump floated above the fray. He offered a convincing, unrehearsed defense of his conservatism. He even managed to turn his apparent support for universal health care into a compelling call for solidarity, to not allow the poor and ill to die in the street for lack of health care. In 2011, a Republican debate crowd cheered loudly the opposite proposition – that the uninsured should be left to die. Trump’s clarion call for good citizenship garnered modest applause.

That’s odd, and now the Rubio backers, the “establishment” Republicans who are appalled by Trump and loathe Ted Cruz, are in a fix:

Christie performed well tonight. So did Jeb Bush and John Kasich. If they weren’t so prohibitively behind Trump, it would be worth considering whether they might still pull off an upset in Tuesday’s primary. But the upset they might pull off is to deny Rubio a second-place finish in New Hampshire, and send the GOP establishment into disarray once again.

Now, Rubio won’t do. Slate’s Elias Isquith saw things this way:

Things got started when Rubio was asked to respond to Christie’s allegation that, after experiencing the presidency of Barack Obama, who was elected as a first-term U.S. senator, it would be especially unfortunate if the Republican Party were itself to nominate Marco Rubio, a first term U.S. senator, for the White House. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me,” Christie had said (bettering his former benefactor, George).

Rubio’s comeback was pretty good, if a little obvious in its intent: He argued that experience was overrated; if it mattered, Vice President Joe Biden would be a good candidate for commander-in-chief. He then argued that an unspoken premise of the criticism – that Obama has failed in part due to his inexperience – is faulty. Obama knows exactly what he’s doing, Rubio said. The president is not a fool; he’s a menace.

Christie wasn’t having it, dismissing Rubio’s Biden straw man and recommitting to his initial attack. Rubio’s a nice guy, a smart guy, Christie said, but the simple fact is that he’s never had to make an important decision. This got a noticeable round of applause from the audience. And perhaps that’s why Rubio then proceeded to self-destruct.

What Rubio’s next five or so minutes such a disaster wasn’t really what he said – but the fact that he had already just said it.

And then things got tough:

Looking mighty flummoxed, Rubio tried to parry Christie’s second attack by pivoting once again to Obama, hoping to bring the crowd around to his side by using generous helpings of ideological red meat to help their tribal identification overwhelm their intellect. It had already failed, but he was doing it again. Worse still, his second answer was almost a verbatim repeat of his first.

Remember: The knock on Rubio has always been, essentially, that he’s a lightweight. He’s young, pretty good-looking, and he exudes the kind of Kennedy-esque earnest, “idealistic” machismo that seems to send a thrill up the legs of the Republican Party’s aged voter base (as well the aging ranks of the elite political press). As they once said of that cherubic whippersnapper Al Gore, Rubio is an older person’s idea of a young person. …

Well, it’s hard to imagine anything Rubio could have possibly done that would more immediately, and humorously, affirm the caricature. Here he was, really being challenged for the first time – and by Christie, a world-class bully, no less – and he was wilting. He was like an artificially intelligent robot confronted with a logical question his programming couldn’t handle.

It was sad:

Whether due to incompetence or pity, the moderators tried to move on. But like a really big, mean, and sadistic shark, Christie was all over it. He mocked Rubio for falling back on his talking points – something all politicians do, but rarely so conspicuously – and continued to shred the senator’s (lack of a) record, as well as tout his own hands-on experience governing New Jersey.

Rubio tried to tu quoque [counter] Christie, noting that the governor had only grudgingly returned to the Garden State during a recent snowstorm. Christie all but rolled his eyes and laughed it off while the audience booed – at Rubio. And then, unbelievably, Rubio started to fall back into repeating the talking point (let’s not pretend Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing…) yet again. “There it is!” Christie interjected. The crowd was with him. Rubio’s emasculation was all but complete.

And, I swear to God, about forty minutes later, he used the same line again.

And that was that:

I’m guessing that the whole rest of the debate put together won’t matter nearly as much as those five minutes. Because perhaps more than any other single traditional element of a presidential campaign, the response to debates – especially primary debates, and especially primary debates on a Saturday night – is influenced by the media. Sometimes it’s a negative influence, granted. But that’s influence all the same.

And the media, I promise you, is going to be obsessed with this first, most dramatic Christie-Rubio confrontation. Because not only does it make for good television and good copy….but it’ll make for great late night jokes and “Saturday Night Live” skits, too. That’s thanks, in part, to its already fitting a pre-established narrative. Christie, the bully you like despite yourself; Rubio, the young, handsome and über-ambitious empty suit.

Ah, but this may be a good thing:

If nothing else, it showed that professional bullies like Chris Christie can provide a valuable public service every now and then.

Well, at that first performance of Boléro, long ago, that woman did shout out that Ravel was mad. Someone had to say it. Over and over, louder and louder, can be a long strange trip to nowhere in particular, but Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog offers this:

I share the widespread belief that Chris Christie wiped the floor with Marco Rubio last night – and for that we may owe him a debt of gratitude. Rubio’s struggles last night could be the “Oops” moment that will haunt him forever – and so the guy who was potentially the strongest general election candidate of the three Republican front-runners might struggle in New Hampshire and fade. That’s good news.

And here’s a bonus: If that does happen, and if Donald Trump or Ted Cruz goes on to lose the general election this fall, Chris Christie will be, in the eyes of many members of the Republican Establishment, the man who cost the GOP two straight presidential elections, the first one by cozying up to Barack Obama after Sandy, then this one by going after Rubio.

Yes, I know that the polls all favored Obama even before Sandy, but a lot of Republicans still believe, erroneously, that Romney had it in the bag until Sandy hit. Will the Establishment hate Christie for this? Look at how angry the insiders have been at Jeb Bush for pounding on Rubio all this time, in a doomed effort to save his own campaign. Christie’s campaign is almost certainly doomed as well, and now he might be blamed for tarnishing Golden Boy. Smooth move, Chris.

But there was a better answer available to Rubio to what Christie actually said to him:

See, Marco, the thing is this: When you’re president of the United States, when you are a governor of a state, the memorized 30-second speech where you talk about how great America is doesn’t solve one problem for one person. They expect you to plow the snow. They expect you to get the schools open. And when the worst natural disaster in your state’s history hits you, they expect you to rebuild their state, which is what I’ve done. None of that stuff happens on the floor of the United State Senate.

Steve M:

What was Christie saying here? He was saying that being required to deal with strictly domestic problems makes him more qualified to be president that a U.S. senator, even though senators deal with foreign as well as domestic policy. He was saying that getting the streets plowed is all the job experience a potential president needs.

That makes no sense:

What Rubio should have done was to summarize the complexities of, say, the war in Syria – ISIS and Assad and Putin and the Kurds and Turkey and so on – and then asked Christie, “And you think what qualifies you to take this on is that you know how to get six inches of snow plowed in Bayonne?”

But Rubio stuck with his talking point:

“But I would add this,” he said. “Let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He is trying to change this country. He wants America to become more like the rest of the world…” And then shortly afterward, “Here’s the bottom line. This notion that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing is just not -“

“There it is!” Christie interjected.

“That’s the reason why this campaign is so important,” Rubio protested. “Because I think this notion – I think this is an important point. We have to understand what we’re going through here. We are not facing a president that doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows what he is doing.”

Steve M doesn’t get it:

I don’t understand why this was supposed to be effective at all, even said once. Rubio was being accused of having the same level of inexperience that Barack Obama had in 2008 – an experience deficit that some Obama-haters think put this country in peril. Rubio countered by saying that Barack Obama wasn’t an incapable naïf, he was a highly capable nihilist deliberately and capably destroying America by design. Conclusion: And I’m just as qualified as the America-destroyer!

Really, Marco? That was your message? Vote for me because I’m just as qualified to be president as the guy we all think brought America to his knees? In this context, Rubio shouldn’t have even said that once.

But he did, but Kevin Drum once described Rubio this way:

To me he seems like a robot: he’s memorized a whole bunch of virtual index cards, and whenever you ask a question he performs a database search and recites whatever comes up. The index cards aren’t bad, mind you, and I suppose they allow him to emulate a dumb person’s notion what a smart person sounds like. This is despite the fact that he normally talks with the same kind of hurried clip employed by nervous eighth graders reading off actual index cards.

Now Drum says this:

This has always been my basic take on Rubio, and it makes me a little puzzled by his appeal among the conservative intelligentsia. But maybe they don’t really care? Maybe they agree with Grover Norquist’s take on the presidency from four years ago:

“We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go… We just need a president to sign this stuff… Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States.”

Well, Rubio has the requisite number of working digits, and he’s reliably conservative even if he’s not one of the great thinkers of our age. So maybe it doesn’t matter if he’s a callow empty suit. As long as he signs the stuff that Ryan and McConnell send him, and can give a good speech now and then defending it, he’s aces. At a minimum, though, this requires Rubio to effectively hide his inability to think outside of sound bites. Christie shattered that illusion for good last night when he bluntly pointed out Rubio’s robotic repetition of the exact same puerile talking point within the space of a couple of minutes.

It’s hard to know what to make of this:

Will this hurt Rubio? If he’s smart, he’ll own it. He’ll make it the centerpiece of his campaign going forward, sort of like “Make America great again.” Unfortunately, now that Christie has pointed out Rubio’s index-card habit, everyone is going to be looking for it on every other subject too. Reporters will be combing through his debates and stump speeches looking for canned talking points, and then doing side-by-side comparisons as if he’s an author being accused of plagiarism.

No, he’ll own it. David Corn reports from New Hampshire the next morning:

The morning after Rubio’s malfunction, at a pancake breakfast in Londonderry – where Democrat operatives appeared in cardboard outfits depicting the candidate as “Marco Roboto” – Rubio offered his much-anticipated response to this stumble: “After last night’s debate, everyone is saying, ‘Oh, you repeated yourself.’ Well I’m going to be saying it again.” Meaning that he would persist in proclaiming that Obama knows what he’s doing as he supposedly wrecks America. And on ABC News, Rubio said, uh, the same thing: “It’s what I believe and it’s what I’m going to continue to say, because it happens to be one of the main reasons why I am running.”

The last time Rubio messed up big-time – when he awkwardly grabbed a bottle of water and took a swig while delivering the official GOP reply to Obama’s State of the Union address – he chose to respond with humor and made a series jokes about that awkward incident. This time, he’s going with defiance. That may be an indication that his advisers believe that this mess is damn serious and cannot be joked away. No doubt, this hang-tough approach will work fine with his pre-existing fans. But can Robo-Rubio sell it to a wider audience?

No – you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave. The Eagles did sing that song about being trapped in a nightmare. Welcome to the Hotel California, Marco – and as for the others there, the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson covers that:

Ted Cruz used his closing statement at Saturday night’s Republican Presidential debate, in Manchester, New Hampshire, to praise, in sonorous terms, his own political bravery. He had been told that opposing ethanol subsidies would be “political suicide”; he stood up anyway, and Iowa’s caucus-goers had put “country and our children above the cronyism and corporate welfare” to vote for him. It was a classic Cruzian set of lines, rendering his supporters as worshippers and his opponents as people of bad will. Cruz had just wrapped up when Donald Trump threw out an alternative explanation for Cruz’s victory in Iowa.

“That’s because he got Ben Carson’s votes, by the way,” Trump said. He was referring to the Cruz campaign’s dirty tricks in Iowa, particularly a concerted effort to persuade caucus-goers that Carson had dropped out of the race. (The assumption was that Cruz, a religious conservative like Carson, would be the second choice for many of them.) Trump half-sneered at Cruz, but it was, by his standards, fairly lightly done. He hadn’t gone after Cruz much personally during the debate, even when the moderators, ABC News’s Martha Raddatz and David Muir, began the proceedings by reading Trump a quote from Cruz saying that he, Trump, might drop nuclear weapons on Denmark. Indeed, Trump, despite a solid dose of talk about wall-building and oil-seizing, left most of the job of attacking his opponents to the others.

They obliged, with the result that this Republican debate, like the previous one, and like the Iowa caucus, failed to winnow the field.

In fact, this Republican debate, like the previous one, and like all their campaigning this year, is the same words, with the same melody, played over an endlessly repeating figured bass. The idea is to cast a spell, but it seems they’re saying the same thing over and over, louder and louder, on a long strange trip to nowhere in particular. That made a great Eagles song. That doesn’t make great politics.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Breaking the Spell

  1. Rick says:

    Slate’s Elias Isquith, on Marco Rubio’s age:

    As they once said of that cherubic whippersnapper Al Gore, Rubio is an older person’s idea of a young person.

    Yes, but that can work both ways.

    Being someone who has gone through his whole life looking younger than he is (I’m 71, but a few weeks ago, someone guessed I was in my 50s), I tell people it’s a good-news/bad-news story; the good news is that I don’t look my age, but the bad news is that I am.

    With Marco, this works against him. He’s 44, but I know plenty of people, especially those “of a certain age”, who think he looks too young to be president. And lack of longevity may help explain his debate screwup: The older you get, the better chance that you will have learned tricks to strategize around your mental shortcomings.

    Of course, having learned the lesson from Trump — never apologize, and for godsakes never backtrack — Rubio’s response to his robotic repetition the next day was predictable:

    “It’s what I believe and it’s what I’m going to continue to say, because it happens to be one of the main reasons why I am running.”

    That’s sort of the same lesson I learned being an amateur jazz-guitar jammer; if you hit a wrong note, the trick is to repeat the mistake one or two more times, in hopes the audience will think you did it on purpose. After all, this is jazz! People come to expect weird sounds now and then! It might even earn you praise as an innovative improviser.

    But here’s one big problem with Rubio trying that same trick:

    The short version of what Rubio says — that we need to stop thinking Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing because he does — is something that most of us Democrats, including Obama, can sign on to, which makes it, in effect, Rubio’s endorsement of Obama. That would be nice for Democrats if Obama were running for president, but he’s not. You’d think Rubio would want to concentrate his admonitions on the people he’s actually competing with for the office, especially if he’s planning on making some repeated phrase the centerpiece of his campaign.

    Donald Trump, on the other hand, is old enough (69) to have learned a few workarounds to his not knowing the first thing about doing the job he’s aspiring to, many of which are being wrong about so many of his claims (“His grandmother in Kenya said he was born in Kenya and she was there and witnessed the birth, okay?”, “If you look at the statistics, of … the illegal immigrants — if you look at the statistics on rape, on crime, on everything, coming in illegally to the country, they’re mind-boggling”, et al) that nobody bothers fact-checking his statements anymore.

    If anyone has been looking into Trump’s latest whopper regarding the Iowa caucuses, I’ve missed it. Here he was in Arkansas on Wednesday of last week, two days after Iowa:

    “Actually, I think I came in first,” he told a cheering crowd of more than 11,500 people who packed into Barton Coliseum to hear him.

    Mr. Trump, who placed second in Iowa, was continuing a theme he had been unspooling over the previous 24 hours — that in his view, Senator Ted Cruz, who won Monday’s caucuses, had in fact stolen the election.

    Mr. Cruz was declared the winner, with 27.6 percent of the vote; Mr. Trump came in second, with 24.3 percent.

    I haven’t heard estimates of exactly how many Carson voters were tricked into going over to Cruz, but I’m willing to bet Trump doesn’t know either. But I do think it’s significant that, in quitting Carson, very few if any of them thought to switch to Trump. He may not think that’s worth noting, but I do.

    But here’s Trump complaining about the attention Rubio got after Iowa:

    “In fact, you would have thought he had won. I came in second, he came in third, and his is a tremendous victory and mine’s not.

    “It’s interesting that Marco came in third place and it’s one of the great victories in the history of politics. They said, ‘No, no, his is, but yours isn’t.’ And I said, ‘Oh, that’s wonderful.’ I didn’t understand that.”

    Do you seriously not understand?

    Okay, it’s all about expectations, Don. You were expected to win it, but you got beat. Rubio, who many had hoped would be a possible alternative to you and Cruz, and had been hanging down among the also-rans, somewhat surprisingly ended up in a virtual tie with you for second place!

    Get it yet? You need to figure out this politics stuff soon if you have any hopes of competing in the general election, much less being a successful president. (Shutter.)

    But also:

    Trump then argued that the gap between his results and Rubio is much wider than widely acknowledged.

    “People said Rubio was right next to me,” he said. “Well, he was more than 2,000 votes away. That’s a lot of votes.

    “Don’t forget, in the history of Iowa, I got the most votes, other than one person, Ted. … I got a tremendous amount of votes, nobody came close.”

    Yeah, you got the most votes — “other than one person”, Ted Cruz — who got more. “Nobody came close” to your votes? How about Marco Rubio?

    For a better perspective on actually how far ahead of Marco and behind Ted you ended up, here are the actual numbers:

    votes: 51,666 percent: 28% delegates: 8

    votes: 45,427 percent: 24% delegates: 7

    votes: 43,165 percent: 23% delegates: 7

    So by my figuring, you were 2,262 votes ahead of Rubio — big whoop! — but you were 6,239 behind Cruz! Almost three times as many! If 2,000 is “a lot of votes”, then 6,000 is “a lot of votes”, times three! You and Rubio tied on delegates; Cruz got more.

    But here’s the thing: With fingers crossed, I still think I want Trump to beat Rubio to the GOP nomination.

    Yes, I realize the risk of this venomous lounge-lizard becoming our president, it’s just that Rubio gives the appearance of being more normal than Trump, and maybe even Ted Cruz, which means he probably has a better chance to beat either Hillary or Bernie, whereas I’m betting that most of America is more aware of the threat from Trump.

    Man, choosing a president in this country is getting to be like tap dancing on the edge of a cliff.


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