Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Fast Times at Bloomberg High

S. E. Cupp, Virginia Postrel, Megan McArdle, and Katherine Mangu-Ward and discuss politics.

This post contains recycled Twitter material and took a week to write due to internet problems, namely Comcast.

Megan McArdle watched the latest Republican debate and was not impressed.
"Both sides do it" is the last refuge of the scoundrel. McArdle can't very well admit that her favorite method of communication, sly invective, made her side look mean-spirited, quarrelsome, unprofessional and unintelligent during the debate. She also can't admit that Clinton and Sanders were a model of decorum in comparison.

Let's take a look at that Hobbesian "all against all." It's exactly what McArdle wants. I don't know much about Hobbes (sans Calvin) but I can read Wikipedia and I do know his most famous quote:
Beginning from a mechanistic understanding of human beings and the passions, Hobbes postulates what life would be like without government, a condition which he calls the state of nature; much of this was based on Hugo Grotius' works. In that state, each person would have a right, or license, to everything in the world. This, Hobbes argues, would lead to a "war of all against all" (bellum omnium contra omnes). The description contains what has been called one of the best known passages in English philosophy, which describes the natural state mankind would be in, were it not for political community: [15]
In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.[16]
What could be more libertarian than a world without government? Sure, they would mooch off everyone else for what they can't live without (a legal system backed up by a system of force) but the rest is hand-waving and circus ponies, which is fun and easy.

The right got everything they wanted. They empowered the Evangelicals because the latter were easy pickings; easily swayed and easily led. The empowered Evangelicals gradually repulsed the rest of the voters by their extremism. When Democrats were elected president, right then set about destroying the means by which they controlled the Evangelical/working class Republican, authoritarian respect for the leaders, the elite. The new poor then turned their well-stoked hatred onto their own leaders and the Republican establishment lost ever more control over the process.


They opened up the donor spigot, which led to the loss of control over the funding of political candidates and the rise of Trump. They screw up everything they touch because they are greedy and stupid.

The right's candidates are an embarrassment and despite her well-practiced air of omniscient amusement, McArdle supported them. Scott Walker, the Mortimer Snerd of politics. Ted Cruz, with his silly putty face and my-eyes-on-God gaze. And now Rubio, human .gif.

McArdle made an extraordinarily rare Sunday post to try to rehabilitate her Last Hope for a presidential race that will not be humiliating, let alone unsuccessful. She began in the usual way, talking about herself. It seems McArdle interviewed with Goldman, Sachs, once upon a time, in the belief that she would be an asset to that firm. She might have mentioned that before, perhaps while defending it on tv, but let's not be picky. She flubbed the interview, saving her a period of humiliation and a summary firing, so all's well that ends well but that experience taught her that Marco Rubio, too, can move back into his parents' house, find a billionaire backer, and turn defeat into victory.

I bring this up, of course, because of Marco Rubio, who got mauled by Chris Christie last night in the Republican debate over his habit of delivering canned lines from speeches in response to debate questions. This attack has been brewing all week --arguably for longer than that, as journalists have long complained about the repetition of Rubio’s stump speech. I’ve dismissed the complaints from journalists --and will continue to, because this is the most short-sighted sort of insider myopia. Most voters will never listen to Rubio’s stump speech more than once, and they don't care that he has given those answers before. They aren’t so stupid as to assume that politicians write all-new remarks for a half-dozen campaign appearances every day, and unlike journalists, they don't think that verbal originality is the highest peak of human achievement.
Walker didn't need that elite university training. Rubio doesn't need the ability to speak extemporaneously. Or naturally.
But by relentlessly attacking Rubio, Christie forced him off his game. Rubio had anticipated the attack, and had a canned answer. Christie came back at him. It was a moment in which Rubio could have locked the debate away by giving Christie a withering stare and saying “Chris, Chris—is this really the best you can do? Complaining about my debating style? I’m here to talk about the issues and what we can do for the American people, not to try to impress a bunch of Washington insiders by one-upping each other over stuff that isn’t going to make one bit of difference to how I’ll conduct myself as president of the United States.”
It worked in McArdle's prep school bathroom so it'll work on the debate stage as well.

First, you look down your nose and sneer at your opponent. Your withering stare must take her in from hair band to shoes, the disgust on your face implying that her shoes are from the wrong European factory and her money only goes back one generation. Then you affect a world-weary air, letting your friends and enemies know that you are not impressed by the presumption of your attacker and you find her volley sadly lacking in intelligence. You use reductio ad absurdum arguments to belittle her. Then you remind the upstart of your personal superiority in the most sanctimonious, arrogant way possible, hoping that your opponent will be intimidated into silence.

McArdle just knows that if Rubio had followed her advice (for a very reasonable fee!), Christie would be crying in the bathroom and binging on Snickers bars right now. The only surprise is that she did not tell Rubio to get some friends and corner Christie in the stairwell, chanting "Fat!fat!fat!" until Christie cried and ran away.
But I’ve had 12 hours to come up with those remarks.
I could have watched Mean Girls and come up with those remarks in 180 minutes.
In the moment, faced with the same dreadful choice I had 15 years ago, Rubio decided that ad-libbing was dangerous. (He was right!) So then, incredibly, he did something even worse: he repeated himself, nearly word for word. Three or four or five times. I’m afraid I lost count, as it was too painful to watch.

McArdle was on Team Walker until he flamed out in the debate club try-outs. After eavesdropping in the bathroom stalls she discovered Team Cruz but none of her friends liked him so she quickly dumped him too. The only guy left (except for that nouveau riche bully Trump and Megan couldn't afford to be see supporting a fellow crass New Yorker) was baby-faced freshman glad hander Rubio the Suck-Up. But she must support someone because that's how you make friends and allies so Rubio it is.
Substantively, I don’t think this matters.
Substantively, the debate proved Rubio had no substance.
The reaction from journalists on Twitter was just slightly overapocalyptic, as if getting rattled for a few minutes actually had some bearing on Rubio’s fitness for the presidency, or even his ability to compete in the general. Everyone in these campaigns hews closely to a script -- indeed, the funniest moment for me last night was when Christie, still riding high on his earlier victory, tried to launch exactly the same attack on Rubio again, using largely the same words. No one in modern times ad-libs their way to a nomination; even the attacks on scripts are themselves carefully scripted. And anyone can get shaken if they’ve been told to stick to a script, seen it work for them and then suddenly got knocked out of it.

It's not that he hewed closely to a script. It's that he was utterly incapable of not hewing closely to a script because he couldn't do anything else.

Just because Megan McArdle blew a Goldman, Sachs interview doesn't mean that she wouldn't have been a wonderful financial consultant and just because Rubio blew a debate doesn't mean he wouldn't be a wonderful president. If you have the right ideology and background--or just the right backers-- you don't need to actually be able to do anything. Megan can't do anything. She's apocalyptically bad at math. Her writing style is Mean Girl by way of Downtown Abbey. Her attempt at reasoning and problem-solving are disastrous.  Her core of knowledge is sketchy at best and flat wrong at worse.

But-and this is the gist of the whole sorry post--Rubio would be just as good as Megan McArdle at being president.

Not that competency matters anyway!
And even politically, I’m not sure how much damage was done. The primary is two days away -- and those two days in between are going to be dominated by Super Bowl coverage. Rubio’s gaffe is going to be competing with pregame analysis and viral ads for screen time, even in New Hampshire. Moreover, the voters in New Hampshire are more likely than most to have actually watched the whole debate, where Rubio made a strong showing after his initial dreadful performance.
I would mock this unsupported optimism but fortunately I can mock it in hindsight. McArdle continues to be wrong about Rubio.
Besides, the great lesson of this nomination season is that the stuff that strikes journalists and political professionals as disqualifying -- wildly implausible campaign promises, calling yourself a socialist, making outrageously sexist remarks -- often plays very differently with primary voters than we expect.
Both Sanders and Trump Do It. Sophisticates can't understand it but the little people inexplicably disagree with them.
That said, two days before a primary in which you were expected to make a strong showing is obviously a very bad moment to choke. And if Rubio does survive this, he is going to need to learn from it, fast, because having seen this work once, other candidates are going to try it. He either needs a deeper script, with four or five potential answers to each question, or he needs to practice ad-libbing without rambling or embarrassing himself.
Because if he can’t, he’s going to have to start memorizing another kind of speeches: the kind that begins “I’d like to congratulate my opponent on securing the nomination of the Republican Party.”
So much for Rubio. The right has run out of establishment Republicans and now must pick which dystopian movie they want to live through: Back to the Future Part II or Nixon 2:The Evangelical.


Ellis Weiner said...

Great piece, Susan. Mean Girls by way of Downton Abbey is exactly right.

I happen to think that Rubio would have had a much better profile and reputation had he, when he gave that post-SOTU address and reached for the water bottle, stopped, smiled to cam, and said, "My god, I'm thirsty. Hang on a second." And then drunk. Which is to say, if only he were a different person.

He didn't, because he's a creature of nothing but ambition. He's eager to learn his lines and to deliver them. He's been assured by the experts around him that that's all it takes. And the results speak for themselves, in the same exact words, over and over. At least with Christie, hideous monster though he is, you sense a living, alert personality.

The option of Rubio having a real personality, of reacting spontaneously, which is to say, honestly, never occurs to Megan. It probably never occurs to her when she herself has to give a public performance. Her pose of (faux-) expertise won't allow it. Maybe something in her resonates at the sight of Rubio's fake-it-til-you-make-it empty-suit ambition. In any case, that's the level on which she engages--and approves of, and advocates--him. It takes one to know one.

Susan of Texas said...


That's very true; she doesn't discuss Rubio's ideas or personality much, she just assesses his chances of winning. She sees him as a product that is created and marketed, not as a person.

cynic said...

The reaction from journalists on Twitter was just slightly overapocalyptic, as if getting rattled for a few minutes actually had some bearing on Rubio’s fitness for the presidency, or even his ability to compete in the general.

Obviously only applies to Rubio. Not to Dean, not to Dukakis, not to Gore - all of whom were thoroughly savaged by the press for their perceived gaffe's.

It must be nice to be able to turn memory on and off whenever you want to.

Susan of Texas said...

That's nothing--you should see what she can do with her soul.

cynic said...

She has one? really?

Susan of Texas said...

Heh. She had it removed and only uses it when she knows she's expected to show empathy.