CONCORD, N.H. -- "Obama knows exactly what he's doing" -- in just a few minutes, that went from a stock phrase in Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) speeches to a laugh line comparable to "please clap." The mockery by Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) seemed to rattle Rubio, and memes of the Florida senator seemingly decreasing in age and height as he repeated the stock phrase have ricocheted since before he left the debate stage.
The reaction raised a reasonable question: What was Rubio trying to say? There are two answers. First, and most obviously, Rubio was offering a definitive answer to the charge that he is a "Republican Obama." While most of his opponents portray the 44th president as a naif, Rubio argues that he proved a young, charismatic politician could blow into Washington and get what he wants.
The second answer is that the idea of Obama as a saboteur, who "knows exactly" how to undermine American greatness, is deeply ingrained on the right. The rest of Rubio's answer, lost in the torrent of mockery, was this:
Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world. That's why he passed Obamacare and the stimulus and Dodd-Frank and the deal with Iran. It is a systematic effort to change America.
This should be familiar to anyone in the tea party movement, and especially familiar to anyone who's read the Obama-era work of Dinesh D'Souza. Starting with a 2009 cover story in Forbes, D'Souza posited that the president was "the last anticolonial," a man inculcated with anti-Western values, whose decisions were best understood if one asked how they weakened America.
"Obama grew to perceive the rich as an oppressive class, a kind of neocolonial power within America," D'Souza wrote. "In his worldview, profits are a measure of how effectively you have ripped off the rest of society, and America’s power in the world is a measure of how selfishly it consumes the globe’s resources and how ruthlessly it bullies and dominates the rest of the planet."
Over the next few years, D'Souza adapted that thesis into a book and movie. He found common cause with Glenn Beck, who in his Fox News heyday portrayed every Obama decision as part of a long-term left-wing strategy to destroy wealth and empower the Third World. Beck obsessed over a stock phrase from Obama's 2008 stump speech -- that he would help "fundamentally transform America" -- and insisted that he had given the game away.
Was Rubio embracing that thesis? Not quite, but having been elected in the 2010 tea party wave, he knew the sentiment. There is a real divide between people who view the president as a vainglorious bumbler and those who view him as a plotter.
" 'Change,' to me, has become a problematic word," said Eric Kolb, 35, at a rally for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) this week. "Barack Obama has attempted to, and has in many ways succeeded, in fundamentally transforming the country. The last thing we need to do is change. We need to get back to founding principles."
Rubio's answer was supposed to evoke that worry. Instead, it ... did not.