The Republican Party once again packed a stage with its candidates for a debate on Wednesday night, and most of them still don't have a prayer. The CNBC-sponsored event served more as a sounding board for conservative talking points and personal political agendas from politicians polling in the single digits than as the debate the nation needed to hear. It’s still a farce. The most substantive part, unfortunately, was an early exchange between Marco Rubio, the U.S. senator from Florida, and Jeb Bush, the state’s former governor.
The question, posed to Rubio, was framed around a Tuesday editorial from the Sun Sentinel demanding the junior senator resign because he has missed a staggering amount of votes during his campaign for the presidency. “Your job is to represent Floridians in the Senate,” the board wrote. “Either do your job, Sen. Rubio, or resign it.”
It’s a valid attack. Rubio has missed more votes than any other senator this year. His friends are hinting that he hates his job, and Rubio himself has openly admitted he’s missing votes because of his presidential candidacy. "I'm not missing votes because I'm on vacation," Rubio said on CNN last Sunday. "I'm running for president so that the votes they take in the Senate are actually meaningful again."
When pressed, Rubio staggered a bit, beginning his answer with a bizarre attempt to distance himself from the Washington establishment (to which, as a senator, he undeniably belongs). Moderator Carl Quintinalla, in the question, asked Rubio whether he was “in a hurry” to win the White House. “That's exactly what the Republican establishment says, too,” Rubio offered in response. “Why don't you wait in line? Wait for what? This country is running out of time. We can't afford to have another four years like the last eight years.” Afterward, he went on the defensive—effectively. “Back in 2004, one of my predecessors in the Senate, by the name of Bob Graham, a Democrat, ran for President, missing over 30 percent of his votes. I don’t recall them calling for his resignation,” he said. The senator also cited John Kerry and Barack Obama missing many votes when they ran in 2004 and 2008. The media was to blame for the attack, Rubio said—which is technically true, given the editorial, but still a weak response.
His fellow Floridian, saddled by his family name and falling poll numbers, saw an opening. “What is it, like a French work week? Do you have to show up for like three days? Just show up or resign,” Bush said. It was a pivotal moment: Rubio could have very easily dodged the question by attacking his former mentor, a one-time establishment favorite who is struggling to maintain a legitimate argument to continue his candidacy.
But he didn’t. Instead, Rubio tried to stay above the fray. “Someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you,” he said in response, “but I’m not running against Jeb Bush or anyone else on this stage. I’m running for president because there’s no way we can elect Hillary Clinton.” By attempting to elevate himself, Rubio sent a clear message to the establishment that he had dissed earlier: I'm your only hope. And he's right: The only chance the Republican Party has of knocking Donald Trump and even Ben Carson off their perches is to coalesce around a candidate that most Americans can realistically see becoming President of the United States. Whether that has to do with pedigree, looks, record, or policy platforms, the 44-year-old senator is the most complete package they have.
That rebuttal made mincemeat of Bush's barbs about "showing up to work," something I doubt anyone outside of Florida cares about. No dyed-in-the-wool Republican voter, even one living in the Sunshine State, will opt for Secretary Clinton over Rubio in a general election. By focusing his fire on the top Democratic candidate and alleging that she'll produce a third Obama term, Rubio shrewdly focused not on scoring points against any frontrunner in the GOP primary, but on the true Republican bogeywoman. Even though that suggestion is rubbish, based on Clinton's disagreements with the president on issues ranging from Israeli settlements to Arctic drilling to warmongering, it’s certainly bound to resonate with conservative voters.
Rubio won the duel with Bush, but ultimately—much like the evening itself—it was a waste of time. I'd much rather have heard more tonight about the plans Rubio and the rest of the candidates are offering, not the jobs they’re trying to leave.