26 February 2016

The hopes of sensible people everywhere rest on Marco Rubio’s shoulders


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What took Marco Rubio so long? The young Florida Senator and contender for the Republican nomination has finally got stuck into Donald Trump, the golf-obsessed poltroon who terrifyingly is leading the race to become his party’s candidate in November’s US general election. In the CNN debate on Thursday evening, Rubio went for Trump in a robust manner for the first time, branding him a liar and mocking his record in business.

It was gripping stuff, power politics in the raw, as Rubio fought to destroy a rival who has morphed from the status of joke candidate into a winner, mainly by sheer force of personality and his genius for using social media and rallies to connect with voters who have had it (this time really badly) with the Washington Establishment. It has even drawn him the surprise endorsement of Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey, who recently withdrew from the race. Christie was unveiled on Friday, when he made it clear he is backing Trump because he is “a strong man”, a choice of words that sounded really quite sinister.

Throughout his campaign, Trump has also been aided by the shambles which parts of the Republican Establishment have made of stopping him, with far too many candidates staying too long in the race, creating confusion and a gap through which Trump has charged. Earlier this year, key donors switched to Rubio from other candidates, but the full jump-start required never really happened, until now.

At last, in the aftermath of the latest debate, Rubio looks as though he is up for the fight and enjoying himself, which is when candidates tend to connect, because the right amount of confidence is appealing. At a rally on Friday, he read out some of Trump’s latest tweets, which have been riddled with spelling mistakes and stupid assertions. On Friday Trump even tweeted the following: “Wow, every poll said I won the debate last night. Great honer!” Great honer…

His poor performance, and the mockery online, may even have motivated the Trump campaign to bring forward the Christie announcement, which demonstrates again his ability to dominate the news cycle by creating shock that ripples out through social media, TV and talk radio.

But Rubio’s supporters are throwing a lot back too. A super-PAC (Political Action Committee) which supports Rubio has issued a new advert called Fools, in which the main message is that Trump is a trainee demagogue who exploits the poorly educated. “I love the poorly educated,” Trump said on Thursday, and no wonder, as his dangerous blend of populist nonsense and policies that threaten to start World War III is more popular with less well educated voters. Moderate Republicans and the rest of us must hope that there are sufficient numbers of aspirational Americans who still regard being poorly educated as not a good idea in life.

Being poorly educated is certainly not a helpful characteristic in a President. It is not that Trump is thick, or that intellectuals make good politicians (they don’t) but while he is cunning as a fox, his understanding of economics, international affairs and military matters is scarily weak. He also looks like a man who has not heard the word “no” in his entire adult life.

This is not a brasher and trashier 21st century version of Ronald Reagan. In contrast, Reagan was a serious man who had been a Governor of California and he ran for the Presidency with a clearly defined worldview and an understanding of Soviet weakness. Although his critics like to mock Reagan, and there were shortcomings, he was a giant. Trump is a dangerous clown.

Yet it may be too late to stop him, post-Christie. Super Tuesday, when a dozen states hold their primaries, is just days away, on March 1st. Republicans will vote in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Virginia, and in Alaska there will be caucuses. Trump may be about to build a lead that takes him to the nomination.

If that happens, America may have to choose between Trump and Hillary Clinton, who has been at it in the public eye for a quarter of a century. Her unsteady grasp of truth, and the way in which she emerges from her party’s primary process as a badly weakened candidate, means that it is far from guaranteed she would beat Trump in November. He could win. Even the entry of a third party candidate such as Michael Bloomberg would not be guaranteed to stop him, as he could easily take votes from both candidates and let Trump through.

Only a revived Rubio can credibly stop Trump, and he can beat Hillary as a fresh face kicking out the Clinton dynasty. His rival Ted Cruz does not have wide enough appeal or the presentational skills to do it. Now, perhaps too late, Rubio seems to have found something extra, as tries to appeal to big money, moderate donors to give him the resources to defeat Trump in enough of the remaining primaries. They should empty their bank accounts. The future of the West is in danger if Trump wins. I’m not exaggerating.

Trump is simply not equipped to be President and it is naive to assume he would move towards the centre and sanity in office. Even constrained by Congress, his protectionist policies and rhetoric would be an economic calamity. His foreign policy prescription is a deranged recipe for disaster. The damage done to America’s reputation by his election would be enormous.

Attempting to get voters to focus on these serious risks, Rubio closed the CNN debate with a message pitched at his fellow Republicans, but it should be heard beyond America’s borders: “We have an incredible decision to make, not just about the direction of America but the identity of our party and the conservative movement. The time for games is over.” Voters have been been faced with a wide range of candidates and choices, he said, that had made Trump’s breakthrough easier to achieve. This is an emergency, he implied. “I’m asking you to get behind me … so we can bring an end to this silliness, this looniness.” We had better hope enough good Americans hear his message.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX