There is a right, smart way to take on Republican Marco Rubio and there is a dumb, ineffective way to challenge him.
What you are seeing out of Donald Trump this week — attacking the first-term U.S. senator and former Speaker of the Florida House as a “disloyal” and “sweaty” “lightweight” — is the latter. Trump’s tactics remind me of the same losing strategy Charlie Crist employed against Rubio during the 2010 Senate race.
What Trump and Crist fail(ed) to realize is that their strategies are not only ineffective, they actually strengthen(ed) Rubio’s hand.
There is a playbook to beating Rubio, but me — a Charlie Crist acolyte — drawing it up is a lot like Rex Ryan boasting that he knows how to beat the New England Patriots.
Regardless, here are some do’s and don’ts for beating Tom Brady, err, Rubio.
DON’T talk about Rubio’s youth. This should be a no-brainer, yet on Thursday Trump called Rubio “a kid.” In an election cycle where the Democrats are almost certain to nominate a candidate at least 67 years old, bringing attention to Rubio’s age creates exactly the kind of contrast Team Rubio wants to project. Instead of saying stupid things like what Trump said, Rubio’s opponents should talk about his lack of experience outside of government. Rubio is only 44 years old, yet he’s also a career politician.
DON’T talk about Rubio’s personal finances. Like Crist, Kendrick Meek, and so many others, Trump has opened up a line of attack about Marco’s money, or lack thereof. “Marco Rubio, as an example, he’s got no money, zero,” Trump said. “I think that’s fine, that’s OK, maybe it’s good politically to say you owe money because you over-borrowed on your credit cards. He’s got nothing. I mean, he’s got nothing.”
When will people learn that these attacks on Rubio simply do not resonate? In fact, it’s the opposite. When The New York Times investigated the Rubio family’s financial troubles, his campaign turned that into a fundraising opportunity, raising $100,000 in online donations in the five days after The Times’ stories ran.
DON’T talk about the non-scandal involving Rubio’s use of a Florida GOP credit card to pay for some personal expenses. Undoubtedly, the Democrats will use this if Rubio is the nominee, but Crist tried it and it didn’t work. That’s because there’s some smoke there, but really no fire.
DO talk about the house Rubio co-owned that was foreclosed on (which he eventually sold), not because the foreclosure is an issue, but because it links Rubio to David Rivera. The disgraced former congressman was/is one of Rubio’s best friends and he’s a big gaping hole of South Florida-styled scandal. And because he was/is Rubio’s confidant and Rubio has never really distanced himself from Rivera, it’s a very poor reflection on Rubio. Bringing up Rivera again and again will have voters wondering if he’s the kind of person Rubio would bring with him to the White House.
DON’T take on Rubio’s staff, which is pound-for-pound the best in the Republican field. Jeb Bush may have Sally Bradshaw, but he does not have a team of Sally Bradshaws. Meanwhile, Rubio has a devoted, buttoned-down, penny-pinching staff that remembers how it felt when Crist was leading Rubio by 50 points.
DON’T swim in Rubio’s end of the pool, which is foreign policy. Rubio’s worldview is so black and white and so absolutist that his opponents are likely never going to be able to upstage him without sounding ridiculous. Rubio has spent his time in the U.S. Senate condemning one dictator after another. It’s almost Reaganesque. Meanwhile, Rubio’s opponents are left wondering how they can out-condemn Dictator X. They can’t, of course. So they end up looking silly suggesting Dictator X should be placed on double secret probation.
DO challenge Rubio to go beyond his plaintive wailing about American exceptionalism. He’s been giving basically the same stump speech for seven years — Rubio dad’s was a bartender; America’s the only country that (fill in the blank) — which is fine if you are from Iowa or New Hampshire and haven’t heard it before. But it will be interesting to see if Rubio can write a second and third act for his script. His attempt to outline a ‘Rubio Doctrine’ fell flat very quickly, if for no other reason than how simplistic it sounded.
DO question what is Rubio’s domestic agenda. Because he is so focused on foreign policy, Rubio’s vision for what he’d do at home is fuzzy at best. Undoubtedly it will have something to do with “lowering taxes” and “repealing Obamacare” but Rubio needs to be pressed for specifics. Meanwhile, Rubio is very vulnerable for his complete bungling of the immigration issue, for which he has taken several conflicting positions.
DO question what, if anything, Rubio accomplished while House Speaker. Before this whole Matt Santos period, Marco was arguably the second most powerful politician in Florida. Yet he really doesn’t have much to show for his Speakership. In fact, even Rubio’s allies and Crist’s detractors will say the former governor got the better of him when they held sway together.
As a legislator, Rubio just was not focused on policy issues; instead he chose the career political track, moving through Republican Party positions to eventually Majority Leader. He didn’t take the normal track to serve as various committee chairs. He was the first Speaker to go that route.
DON’T bring up the fact that Rubio’s wife is an ex-cheerleader for the Miami Dolphins. Almost every married man in America (not me, of course) wishes their wife was an ex-cheerleader for an NFL team. Now, if you want to make fun of Rubio for being a Dolphins fan, you probably can’t go wrong there.