ABC News

It’s time for establishment Republicans to face the truth about Marco Rubio: Once you get past the facade, there appears to be no there there.

The void behind his prettified rhetoric was stunningly revealed in Saturday night’s debate. Rubio sounded like a malfunctioning cyborg as he kept repeating one of his prepared lines.

Asked to list his accomplishments in the Senate, he tried to name a few but was wise to change the subject. But he did so with an oddly phrased swipe at the president: “And let’s dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing.” I guess that’s supposed to be a bad thing.

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Chris Christie barged in with a tough attack on Rubio’s lack of experience. Rubio’s response: “Let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing.”

A former prosecutor, Christie persisted by charging that well-honed speeches don’t solve anyone’s problems. Rubio’s retort: “Here’s the bottom line. This notion that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing is just not true. He knows exactly what he’s doing.”

“There it is!” exulted Christie, having maneuvered the defendant into confessing on the witness stand. “There it is, the memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody.”

Rubio’s weak attempt at a comeback demands to be quoted at length: “Well, that’s the — that’s the reason why this campaign is so important. Because I think this notion — I think this is an important point. We have to understand what we’re going through here. We are not facing a president that doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows what he is doing. That’s why he’s done the things he’s done.”

That’s four times, within the course of a brief exchange, that Rubio offered the same snippet of focus-tested rhetoric about Obama being a purposeful president. Why? Two reasons, I think. He couldn’t come up with a way to defend a negligible record and he had nothing to say beyond what he had planned to say.

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But wait, there’s more: Later in the debate, after Christie had swiped at Rubio for disowning his own comprehensive “Gang of Eight” immigration bill, Rubio returned to the well yet again. “Well, here’s the response,” he said. “I think anyone who believes that Barack Obama isn’t doing what he’s doing on purpose doesn’t understand what we’re dealing with here, OK?”

Moderator David Muir deadpanned, “The governor wasn’t talking about the president, he was talking about the Gang of Eight bill.” The audience applauded.

I dwell on this weirdly robotic performance because it was so revealing. Rubio became the darling of the Republican establishment because of his youth, his looks, his inspiring life story, his adherence to GOP orthodoxy and, perhaps above all, his compelling way with words. No one else in the generally dour and angry field has his ability to paint a hopeful future. A general election contest that pits either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders against Rubio, many leading Republicans believe, would be like asking voters to choose between yesterday and tomorrow.

It’s true that much of what is said about Rubio — first-term senator, slender legislative record, brilliant speaker — was also said about Obama. But the president, as Rubio repeatedly pointed out, is a man of substance and intention. He also happens to be a man who never flashes a deer-in-the-headlights look and repeats one of his talking points nonsensically.

Anyone can have a bad night on the debate stage; I recall the way Mitt Romney talked rings around Obama in their first encounter. But that lapse did no great political harm to the president because everyone knew he had more depth than that evening’s performance suggested. Rubio’s display, by contrast, bolsters the narrative of a talented and ambitious young man in far too much of a hurry, programmed to say what he thinks voters want to hear.

Is he deep and substantial enough to be president? Judging from the post-debate buzz, much of the conservative commentariat is asking that question.

Rubio’s brain-lock, if that’s what it was, happened at an unfortunate moment for his prospects. He was billing his third-place showing in Iowa as a win, judged against expectations, and hoping for enough of a surge in New Hampshire to drive other establishment hopefuls out of the race.

On Saturday night, though, John Kasich, Jeb Bush and Christie all seemed plausibly presidential. Rubio, with his canned loop of pre-cooked rhetoric, seemed anything but.

Eugene Robinson’s email address is [email protected].

© 2016, Washington Post Writers Group

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