SAN DIEGO – The “Revenant”-style mauling that Marco Rubio endured from Chris Christie in the GOP presidential debate in New Hampshire was predictable and avoidable but also helpful.
Not to Rubio, of course. He took a hit. For weeks leading up to the primary in the Granite State, the Florida senator was considered by many analysts to be a strong second to Donald Trump. Rubio ultimately got just under 11 percent of the vote, finishing in fifth place about a half point behind Jeb Bush.
But, in a broader sense, the episode was helpful to the process. It reminds us that voters can be fickle and that being elected president of the United States is a tall order.
More on that later.
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First, the fact that Christie would attack Rubio’s experience and canned responses was predictable because, in the days before the debate, Christie had telegraphed his contention that Rubio has led a sheltered political life as “the boy in the bubble.” And the attack was avoidable because the counterattack was obvious. Yet, for some reason, Rubio didn’t pull the trigger.
Here’s what Rubio should have told Christie: “Governor, you’re right. Our jobs are different. Most senators don’t know how to run an executive office, Cabinet department or state bureaucracy. That’s not what we do. But there is another side to that coin. As you show whenever you talk about the world and, for instance, claim that your work as a prosecutor will help you defeat terrorists, governors don’t know anything about foreign policy. What is a more valuable asset at a time like this with the Middle East imploding, North Korea firing a missile, Russia attempting to return to its former prominence, Iran continuing to sponsor global terrorism, and the Islamic State encouraging attacks on U.S. soil?”
And he could have followed up with this: “Besides, Governor, part of making decisions in the executive branch is having the judgment to make good ones. Like whom to hire or appoint to important positions, and how to react when things go wrong. When people who worked for you closed down the George Washington Bridge during rush hour, you claimed you didn’t know anything about it. Is that how it would be with you as president? Haven’t we had enough of that from this administration? Whether it’s the ‘Fast and Furious’ gunrunning scandal or the Internal Revenue Service targeting conservative groups, it’s always a case of the executive in charge claiming he knew nothing about it. Do we really want more of this?”
As for how voters can be fickle, you would think that if Rubio was in fact hurt by this punch, the benefit would go to the person who threw it.
That didn’t happen. Christie finished in sixth place with 7.5 percent. Ironically, if voters came away from the skirmish convinced that Christie was right about governors having the right experience to be president, it was his others who reaped the benefit.
So why didn’t Christie do better in New Hampshire? After spending more than 70 days in the Granite State over the last few months, he flatlined.
New Hampshire voters saw a lot of Christie, but the more they saw of him, the less they seemed to like him. After all, who wants a bully in your living room for the next four years? Some voters might, but they probably support Trump.
In choosing a president, Americans look for a variety of qualities. We want someone tough but likable, and empathetic but not wimpy. We want someone smart but with the ability to learn and the skill to communicate what he or she knows. We want someone who represents and reflects our values, but who also has the strength of character to not just pander to us and tell us what we want to hear instead of what we need to hear. We want them to know about the world, but not at the expense of addressing concerns here at home. We want a good person, but also a good leader. We want someone with courage, strength, vision and clarity. And we want someone who learns from the past but never forgets that his or her main responsibility is to lead us into the future.
As the curtain falls on New Hampshire, Christie’s campaign is on life support. Meanwhile, despite the bloody nose he got from tangling with a bully, Rubio lives to fight another day.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is email@example.com.