"He says he can't keep using lines from his speeches, so he needs us to write him some spontaneous answers."
A gentler look at the boy-in-the-bubble as he follows the yellow brick road to somewhere:
On a sun-washed afternoon in October, 2015, months before the unhappy moment in New Hampshire when he repeated a talking point four times and earned the nickname "Marco Roboto," Marco Rubio was speaking at a strip-mall Cuban restaurant in Las Vegas. Short of throwing roses, the happy-hour crowd at the Havana Grille could not have done more to put him at ease. They chanted "Mar-co, Mar-co!" They stood on bar stools to catch a glimpse.
Rubio started in on his stump speech. Reporters like to mock politicians' repetition—the carbon-copy laugh lines, the pseudo-spontaneous asides, the emotional peaks reproduced for three or four audiences a day. We don't often acknowledge that it's absurd to expect a Presidential candidate to be both original on a daily basis and ubiquitous, so, as long as voters expect to see their candidates face to face, the stump speech endures. But Rubio has always been more assiduous than most in the perfect fidelity of his recitals; after a week or two of his events, I could reproduce the highlights from memory, and, at the Havana Grille, he was rounding a familiar turn, from the tax code to entitlements ("If we can make these changes, we can balance our budget"), when the crowd's enthusiasm distracted him. He stopped.
"They're handing out mojitos in the middle of my speech. I love it. I promise that has never happened before," he said, smiling gamely. Someone thrust a cocktail toward him and he recoiled in mock-horror. "No, no, no, I drink water," Rubio said, playing with the indelible image many have of him guzzling Poland Spring while delivering the G.O.P. response to the State of the Union address, back in 2013. Someone in the front row offered him a tacita of Cuban coffee, and he accepted, placing it on a stool beside him. "You guys are messing up my stump speech," he said, to laughs and cheers. He could have read from the phone book and this crowd would've been happy. But then, instead of realizing that this audience really didn't need another fifteen minutes of his spiel, instead of extemporizing or taking questions, Rubio dropped right back into his routine. He looked as if he couldn't help himself, or as if, in that instant, he had decided that the alternative was too risky. The crowd's energy drifted to Earth like a punctured balloon.
To watch Rubio up close is to see a man torn between two political identities. One of them is adventurous and charismatic: the promise that it offers is that his rare gifts as a speaker and a judge of the public mood could be employed to revitalize the Republican Party. By demonstrating that a young Latino son of immigrants can be its standard-bearer, he would point the way forward for Republicans in a country of growing diversity. This is Rubio the Natural. The other is self-conscious and risk-averse: this version of Rubio sticks as closely as possible to the script, doesn't overplay his minority status (at least through the primaries), and avoids making firm commitments for as long as possible: Rubio the Player. At the restaurant in Nevada, and on the debate stage, he chose the latter identity, and paid a price.
On Tuesday, New Hampshire voters will decide how heavy that price will be this time around. Rubio's inability, or, perhaps more accurately, his unwillingness, in the debate, to leave the security of his script—the now-viral moment that the Boston Herald headlined "Choke!"—could be a collapse or just a stumble. In either case, it was one of those occasions in politics that comes around only once in a while, when a public act captures and clarifies a perception that voters have shared but never adequately articulated. For anyone who had ever caught in Rubio a whiff of playacting—a son clopping around in his father's loafers, declaiming before the bedroom mirror—it made sense. It was his version of Howard Dean's scream, a moment so brief that its effects can seem ridiculous but long enough to confirm voters' creeping sensation that they were not ready for him to be President.
But overlooked in the awkwardness of the Roboto affair is a deeper revelation about Rubio's candidacy, both its weakness and, if he could find a way to it, its potential redemption. The point that Rubio kept repeating—the line that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie lampooned as "the memorized twenty-five-second speech"—was this: "Let's dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he is doing. He knows exactly what he is doing. Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country," a seemingly oddball point for Rubio to be hammering so relentlessly. After that line became a joke, Rubio had no choice but to hold fast to it, and the next day he elevated it to a central message of his campaign. "Change the country—not fix it. Not fix its problems. He wants to make it a different kind of country," he told a crowd in Londonderry, New Hampshire.
That line represents the triumph of Rubio's second identity and also of the instinct that formed it: his calculation that conservative voters don't want him to embrace the reality of a changing country, or to make the case that he, in his first identity, is a sign that Republicans may not have to be afraid of the future. How do we know that he has any insight into that case? Every once in a while, he allows us to see it. I once asked Rubio about Black Lives Matter. Bill O'Reilly and other Fox News commentators describe it as a "hate group," which they blame for a rise in crime and attacks on police officers. But Rubio does not dismiss the group's arguments. "If a significant portion of your population is telling you, 'We feel discriminated against, we feel targeted,' whether you agree with it or not, you have a problem!" He was quick to heap praise on police as well—"They are willing to literally die to keep you and your family safe"—but he returned to the concerns of the protesters. "We cannot ignore that minority communities across this country, particularly African-American males, feel that they are being targeted by law-enforcement agencies."
In his memoir, "An American Son," Rubio describes an experience at South Miami Senior High School, where the student body was about one-quarter black; the rest was mostly Hispanic. He played on the football team and discovered that it was divided by race. Rubio felt most at home with black teammates. "We spent most of our time 'cracking,' sitting around cracking jokes at another's expense," he wrote. Some Hispanic teammates thought that the coach, who was black, gave them less playing time. When Rubio lost his starting position to a black player, they thought he would agree. "That was nonsense," he wrote. "I wasn't benched because I was Hispanic. I was benched because I wasn't strong enough."
It would be easy to spin that story into a conservative fable about self-reliance, but Rubio did not. When I asked him about his high-school experiences with race, I heard a trace of a more encompassing message that he could use if he ever made it to a general election. His awareness of race, he said, came from "the communities that we lived in, and the schools that we went to." He went on, "And even now, in the parks that my kids play in, our teams are predominantly from minority communities, and so you interact with it on a personal level, not reading about it in books."
Somewhere, buried behind the layers of political self-protection, Rubio the Natural knows that America is changing whether Republicans like it or not. And, at rare times, he acknowledges that it's not a reason for fear. But, more often, as he did on the debate stage, Rubio the Player pretends not to know it, and he takes on the role of a man who is hellbent on returning America to a time when he and his story would never have been possible at all. As a politician, he is skilled enough that, if he could summon the will, he could make a powerful case for change. By Wednesday morning, we may know if he'll get the chance.
The National Rifle Association aids and abets gun violence.