Opinion writer

Marco Rubio bashed the mainstream media with great gusto last night, eliciting roars of approval from GOP voters. Amusingly enough, the emerging media consensus appears to be that his attacks on them were brilliantly executed, never mind that they were pressed into service to evade just the sort of legitimate questions the media has been pressing him upon.

But it’s worth drilling down on one key reason why Rubio is so effective and dangerous — to his GOP opponents, and potentially in a general election as well. It’s this: Rubio knows how to feed the angry preoccupations of many GOP base voters while simultaneously coming across as hopeful and optimistic.

The expectation going into last night’s debate was that a showdown was inevitable between Rubio and fellow Floridian Jeb Bush, who has to reassert his position as the dominant establishment alternative to Donald Trump (or, now, Ben Carson, though his rise seems likely to prove fleeting). This required putting Rubio, who is trying to usurp that role, in his place.

Bush spectacularly failed to do this in their one epic confrontation, which has been widely noted. But Rubio is subtly upstaging Bush in another way, as well. Bush’s theory of the 2016 race has been that the way to win the White House is to restore hopefulness and optimism to the conservative vision and thus broaden its appeal. This (Bush believes) requires a break with the sort of politicking that is designed to feed the anger and despair of the GOP’s shrinking core voter groups over demographic change, Obama’s transformation of the country into something no longer recognizably American, and so forth. This is what Bush meant when he said the GOP nominee must be prepared to “lose the primary to win the general.” And last night, Bush again gamely made this point, arguing that Americans crave a “hopeful future,” adding: “They don’t believe in building walls and a pessimistic view of the future.”


Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

A lot of conservative primary voters may well hear such talk and conclude Jeb Bush is talking down to them — that he mostly has contempt for their preoccupations and fears. But Rubio has shown an ability to speak directly to those preoccupations and fears while simultaneously sounding the sort of hopeful, optimistic, forward-looking tone that fits comfortably with Jeb’s theory about the need to broaden the party’s demographic appeal.

This isn’t just because Rubio is young and Latino. His formula is a bit complicated. Last night, Rubio, in what appeared to be an appeal to the deep resentment of many of these voters, skillfully converted legitimate questions about his personal financial management into evidence of Democratic and elite media contempt for his relatively humble upbringing, which he proceeded to explain he had overcome through hard work. Rubio’s narrative is both laden with legitimate resentment and inspiring!

In another big moment, Rubio bashed the media as the “ultimate Super PAC” for Hillary and Democrats, because it was slow to report that Clinton had been supposedly exposed as a liar at the recent House Benghazi hearing. The “MSM” rightly declared the hearing a disaster for Republicans. But GOP primary voters don’t want to hear this. And Rubio offered them a far more comforting narrative, one that also played to anger, resentment, and perhaps even bewilderment over why Benghazi has not yet destroyed Clinton’s candidacy, the way conservatives said it would. The hearing had actually been brutally effective, but the “MSM” covered it up on Hillary’s behalf.

Rubio can play this game as well as — or, indeed, better than — any other GOP candidate. Yet he also can tell a sunny-sounding tale about his immigrant upbringing. Indeed, last night Rubio brought that tale to bear on the discussion of immigration policy, precisely the area that is most directly testing whether the GOP can broaden its appeal. Obviously Rubio’s support for immigration reform could still prove a major liability among primary voters, so we don’t know if Rubio’s balancing act will succeed here. But he’s trying. He’s been making amends for that heresy while simultaneously emphasizing his parents’ heritage as legal immigrants. His implicit message now is: You can vote for a candidate who will never extend citizenship to lawbreakers, but also shows that you do support the sort of legal immigration that helped make America great.

Neither Jeb nor Ted Cruz get this balance right. Jeb is unreliable on immigration, and seems to talk down to GOP primary voters for worrying about it. Cruz is very good at stoking resentment towards the media and is rock-solid on immigration, but he mostly seems just angry. Rubio empathizes with resentment and anger while simultaneously projecting hope and optimism.

Obviously the Rubio boomlet could prove short lived in the primary, or he may prove too young and green — or have other unseen liabilities — to be all that effective as the nominee. But he’s plainly a formidable political talent, and the formula he appears to be developing bears watching.

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* JEB BUSH CAMP DEEPLY FRUSTRATED BY DEBATE: Marco Rubio clearly bested Jeb Bush in their big exchange, and Bush struggled to break through at other moments as well. The New York Times overview of the debate offers this nugget:

Mr. Bush, under great pressure to have a strong debate that would reassure his supporters and change the trajectory of his struggling campaign, had another lackluster night, raising the possibility that uncommitted donors will write him off and embrace candidates like Mr. Rubio. Frustration permeated the Bush camp: Danny Diaz, Mr. Bush’s campaign manager, told reporters that he had complained to CNBC, the cable network hosting the debate, that Mr. Bush was receiving too few questions from the moderators.

That loud clattering sound you hear is the closing of a lot of Bush donors’ checkbooks.

* JEB’S STRATEGY BACKFIRES: The Associated Press adds this scalding assessment of how the exchange with Rubio impacted Jeb:

Bush never seemed to recover from the exchange, which took place just minutes into the debate. He almost completely disappeared for long stretches. In fact, Bush had the least speaking time of anyone in the debate, by some counts.

“Disappearing” is not what Jeb had to do last night. Jeb! just isn’t living up to the promise of that exclamation point, is he?

* RUBIO STRETCHES TRUTH ON ECONOMY: One of Rubio’s key lines about the economy was this: “For the first time in 35 years, we have more businesses closing than starting.” But as Glenn Kessler notes:

Rubio is referring to a report published in 2014 by the Brookings Institution which studied Census Bureau data called Business Dynamic Statistics. Brookings analysts tracked data back to 1978 and found that starting in 2008, business deaths exceeded business births. But note that this started happening seven years ago, while Rubio makes it sound like it is a new development.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. But Rubio attacked the mainstream media really skillfully and that got GOP primary voters very, very excited. So who cares about the factual details?

* ATTACKS ON MEDIA THRILL GOP VOTERS: Ted Cruz repeatedly attacked the media last night, eliciting great roars of approval from the crowd. During one of them, GOP pollster Frank Luntz tweeted:

Ted Cruz’s focus group dials hits 98 with his attack on media bias. That’s the highest score we’ve ever measured. EVER.

Well, Cruz and Rubio certainly know their audience.

* GOP CANDIDATES BOXED THEMSELVES IN: Ezra Klein takes a deep dive into all of the policy ludicrousness on that stage last night, explains that the attacks on the media were intended to evade serious policy scrutiny, and notes that this highlights a deeper weakness:

Republicans have boxed themselves into some truly bizarre policies — including a set of tax cuts that give so much money to the rich, and blow such huge holes in the deficit, that simply asking about them in any serious way seems like a vicious attack. Assailing the media is a good way to try to dodge those questions for a little while, but it won’t work over the course of a long campaign.

For the GOP primary audience, though, it works perfectly well, which is all that matters, at least for now.