While their fireworks have earned Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump the most attention after Wednesday night’s Republican debate in California, the winner for the most detailed and substantive performance may go to Marco Rubio.
The debate covered several policy areas, but the moderators helped Rubio by asking him several questions about foreign policy and national security, the Florida senator’s area of relative expertise. Even with the assist, Rubio took full advantage of the opportunity, starting with a chance to distinguish himself from the GOP frontrunner, Donald Trump.
After Trump claimed early in the debate that his approach to Russia would be to “get along” with that country’s autocratic leader Vladimir Putin, moderator Jake Tapper put the question to Rubio: How would his strategy be different than Trump’s? Rubio responded with a detailed explanation of Putin’s current position in the world and how Russia’s recent actions threaten American interests.
“I have an understanding of exactly what it is Russia and Putin are doing, and it's pretty straightforward. He wants to reposition Russia, once again, as a geopolitical force,” Rubio said. “He himself said that the destruction of the Soviet Union -- the fall of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, and now he's trying to reverse that. He's trying to destroy NATO. And this is what this is a part of. He is exploiting a vacuum that this administration has left in the Middle East.”
At this point, Rubio pivoted to show the connection between Russia’s muscle-flexing and the instability in the Middle East. “Here's what you're going to see in the next few weeks: the Russians will begin to fly combat missions in that region, not just targeting ISIS, but in order to prop up Assad. He will also, then, turn to other countries in the region and say, ‘America is no longer a reliable ally, Egypt. America is no longer a reliable ally, Saudi Arabia. Begin to rely on us.’”
Finally, Rubio brought it together as a critique of the Obama administration. “What he is doing is he is trying to replace us as the single most important power broker in the Middle East, and this president is allowing it. That is what is happening in the Middle East. That's what's happening with Russia,” he said.
He was hardly the only candidate to do so Wednesday, but Rubio ably demonstrated his ability to avoid a direct and potentially distracting confrontation with Trump himself. Instead, he presented a sober view that allowed him to demonstrate a command of the facts. It’s been a central part of the Rubio campaign’s strategy during the summer of Trump: keep provocations to a minimum, stay on message, and emphasize substance over theatrics.
Take Rubio’s next moment, following a claim by Trump that the senators on the stage “bear some responsibility” for Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his 2012 “red line” in Syria and take military action against Bashar al-Assad. Rubio jumped on the charge aggressively. “I will tell you we have zero responsibility, because let's remember what the president said. He said the attack he would conduct would be a pinprick,” Rubio said. “Well, the United States military was not build to conduct pinprick attacks. If the United States military is going to be engaged by a commander-in-chief, it should only be engaged in an endeavor to win. And we're not going to authorize use of force if you're not put in a position where they can win.”
“And quite frankly, people don't trust this president as commander-in-chief because of that,” he added.
The response partially neutralized a Rubio weakness in a presidential race—as a senator, he votes on policy but doesn’t execute it—and turned it into another indictment of the current administration. That’s a surefire way to earn points in a GOP primary. And for good measure, he didn’t gratuitously hit back at Trump.
At another attempt to see combat between Trump and Rubio, Jake Tapper noted Rubio’s criticism of a recent interview with Hugh Hewitt in which Trump failed to show much knowledge of important players in the Middle East. Rubio had said it was “very concerning” that Trump flubbed the interview and suggested anyone who could not be conversant in those players was not qualified to be president. In his response to Tapper’s provocation to start a war of words with Rubio, Trump failed to take the bait. Instead he tried unsuccessfully to engage Hewitt, who was one of the other debate moderators, and only added he would have “the finest team” of advisers in the White House to aid him on foreign policy.