On Thursday night’s pre–Super Tuesday CNN debate, Sen. Marco Rubio probably had a strong enough performance to earn his roughly 10,000th “IT’S OVER, RUBIO IS NOW PRESIDENT!” cycle of overenthusiasm from the Rubio-industrial hype complex that has built up his sweaty, faltering candidacy throughout this campaign. We should remember, though, that Trump is still the dominant front-runner in the Republican race and his supporters are famously unperturbed by his common moments of astounding ludicrousness and fraudulence. Rubio still has only a slim chance of taking the nomination away from the billionaire. But, if it’s ever going to happen, it’s going to be because of what Rubio finally started doing on Thursday night. He went after Donald Trump relentlessly, without melting, and—this is critical—by having fun doing it.
Fun! For a long time it seemed as if all the candidates not named Donald Trump had forgotten about the existence of “fun”—probably because they were losing to Donald Trump, who has been hoarding all the fun to himself. Trump has been radiating fun. When stiff old Jeb Bush would say, “You can’t insult your way to the presidency, Donald,” Trump would dismiss him with wry smile and a shooing motion, a pithy nonverbal insult. He realized that you can insult your way to the presidency—or at least to the Republican nomination—and it’s time for everyone else to learn that too.
So many of the earlier attempts to go after Trump have been stilted and lacking in imagination. Trump once supported single-payer health care! Yeah, so what, shut up. Trump supports eminent domain! Go away, muppet. Trump once said he thought Hillary Clinton was a good secretary of state! Whatever, you’re losing in the polls. All of these items treat Trump like a conventional politician susceptible to collapse on the basis of conventional opposition research. But Trump’s enduring popularity is based on his dominating personality, his ability to tower over the other mortals and break the rules they live by.
So why not just make fun of the guy?
Rubio dumped a lot of opposition research on Trump—about the immigrants who built Trump Tower and the foreign workers he’s brought in to avoid paying American laborers over the years. Rubio wisely punctuated each of these lines with Googling instructions for viewers at home.
But the most effective Rubio moments were the small jabs, the side-digs and jokes he threw in. While they were arguing over the fine Trump paid decades ago for bringing in Polish workers, Trump tried blowing it off by saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. 38 years ago.” Rather than letting it end there, Rubio added, “Oh, he lied 38 years ago. I guess there's a statute of limitation on lies.” When Rubio brought up the large inheritance he received from his father, Rubio said, “Here's the guy that inherited $200 million. If he hadn't inherited $200 million, you know where Donald Trump would be right now? Selling watches in Manhattan.”
And then there was the big one.
Trump was going on about his health care plan. First of all, it’s not a “plan.” (Though he’s hardly unique among Republican candidates in terms of lacking a coherent alternative to the Affordable Care Act that covers a roughly equal number of people.) What he has are two thoughts that he pitches as the most novel, innovative health care ideas in history, when really they’re just two of the three things that all Republicans have been talking about since the dawn of time—expanding health savings accounts and allowing insurers to sell across state lines. (The third is tort reform, but that may be too constricting for the litigious Trump’s taste.)
The moderators, and eventually Rubio, kept asking Trump to expand on his health care plan. Trump just reiterated the same snippets—“the lines around the states,” as he puts it—and saying that it would be fantastic.
“Now he's repeating himself,” Rubio said, bringing down the house with the cheeky reference to his own infamous debate moment in New Hampshire. “No, no, no,” Trump said, still trying to get out of it. Neither Rubio nor the audience would let him. “I saw you repeat yourself five times, four seconds ago,” Rubio added to sustained applause. “We're going to have many different plans,” Trump tried to say, only to be met with a “he's done it again!” At one point Rubio started drawing circles with his fingers, to illustrate the “lines.”
In that moment, he made Trump look like a fool. And he’ll need to keep making Trump look like a fool, over and over, if he wants to salvage his candidacy. We learned Thursday night that he’s pretty good at it. It makes all these months that he spent ignoring Trump because they were in different lanes, or because he hoped Trump would take out Cruz first, look like such wasted time. He should have been thinking all along: Trump is winning. Go after Trump. Have fun. Rubio gets it now, and a moment of clarity like this can be rejuvenating.