The research for this post started a day or two after the pre-NH debate, after I—like so many others—had watched Marco Rubio seemingly self-destruct and repeat himself over and over even though that’s exactly what Christie was attacking him for. It was hard to watch because he did seem programmed and unable to stop himself, but also puzzling, because I’ve seen Rubio in person handling questions from the crowd, and I know that he’s capable of more than that, a great deal more.
Whether you like Rubio as a candidate or not, agree with him or not, this behavior was just plain strange. He’s a law school graduate, for goodness’ sake, and whatever you may think of lawyers, they can speak cogently and extemporaneously. So can Rubio. There’s really no question about it.
I realized then and realize now that it almost doesn’t matter what actually happened or why, because perceptions count for so much in the world of politics (and elsewhere, too). And I’m well aware of the perception the incident engendered in watchers, because I was watching at that point, too, and had pretty much the same perception.
So I was curious. One of the biggest motivations for me in writing this blog is my own curiosity. A great many of my blog posts start with a question about something I don’t quite understand and want to understand better. So with Rubio, “well, I guess he must be a robot” made little sense to me, and that sent me to the transcript of the debate, the only other clue I had.
The result is this post. It’s long, and it’s late in the sense that the debate happened a full week ago. But people are still talking about it, and perceptions have hardened. The delay on my part was because it took a while to do the work, and also because originally my hope was to place the article elsewhere, and that takes time, too. But since it didn’t happen, I’m placing the gist of it right here, on my very own blog.
It’s long, but I’d like you to give it a hearing. And who knows, you might even find some of the information in it useful outside the realm of politics, in other arguments you have in your own life.
It’s based on some things I learned in MFT school long, long ago. Till then, when I had argued with people, it often felt like I was swimming in a sea of mud. One moment we’d be talking about one thing, the next moment something else, then back and forth till it seemed like one of those games of whack-a-mole.
It seems unlikely that a conceptual distinction could help with that sort of thing, but it sure helped me wade through that murky sea. I think it might have helped Rubio last Saturday night, too.
Now that I’ve whetted your appetite (I hope), the analysis follows.
When I was studying interpersonal communication and how to track an argument, one thing that was very much emphasized was the difference between content and process. Content is just what it sounds like: the subject matter about which two people (let’s say, a married couple) are arguing. “Did you do the dishes last night?” Process is everything else—for example, the emotion with which something is said, the type of vocabulary used, tone, repetition, body language, and the unspoken subtext.
Some of the most confusing disputes are the ones where one person begins an argument on the content level and the other person introduces a process rebuttal at some point. It can be especially tricky when someone switches back and forth between one level and the other in rapid succession. In the heat of the moment, the other person can fail to notice it, so that the person doing the switching gets at least one step ahead of the other.
I maintain that such a content-process switch was a large part of what happened between Christie and Rubio the other night. It usually happens fast enough that it can be hard to notice just by listening. So it’s instructive to go to the transcript and study it.
The Christie-Rubio exchange that caused all the commotion began with a question from moderator David Muir:
Muir: Senator Rubio. I want to stay on the issue of readiness to be president and experience and questions about you being a first-term senator.
Governor Christie warning voters here in New Hampshire against voting for another first-term senator as America did with Barack Obama in 2008. Arguing that you are, quote, “ not ready to be president of the United States.”…Tonight, what are your accomplishments in the Senate that demonstrate you are ready to be president of the United States?
So there was a very specific question posed to Rubio about his experience and status as a first-term senator, with an explicit reference to Christie’s previously having compared Rubio’s unreadiness with Obama’s (another first-term senator). In response, first Rubio quickly listed some of his own accomplishments, reminding the audience that not only was he a US senator but that he also was in the Florida legislature.
That part of the answer finished, Rubio then explained that length of service in the Senate is hardly a sufficient recommendation, using Joe Biden’ lengthy tenure there as an example. Then he went on to respond to Christie’s specific equating of his inexperience with Obama’s, as Muir had pointed out, and said that the problem with Obama was not inexperience:
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. Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world.
That’s why he passed Obamacare and the stimulus and Dodd-Frank and the deal with Iran. It is a systematic effort to change America.
Rubio made an important and relevant point, which was that Christie has seriously misread the entire Obama presidency. Then the moderator asked Christie to respond, and Christie didn’t mention any of that; instead he talked about his thoughts and responsibilities as New Jersey’s governor, and about a governor’s accountability, and then called Rubio out on his absences from some Senate votes.
Then Christie added the following, comparing Rubio with Obama again, emphasizing it by saying it three times in two paragraphs [italics mine]:
…what we need to have in this country is not to make the same mistake we made eight years ago. The fact is it does matter when you have to make decisions and be held accountable for them…
I like Marco Rubio, and he’s a smart person and a good guy, but he simply does not have the experience to be president of the United States and make these decisions. We’ve watched it happen, everybody. For the last seven years, the people of New Hampshire are smart. Do not make the same mistake again.
That was quite a charge Christie was making: that somehow Rubio will be just like Obama because both are first-term senators. It was actually a somewhat nonsensical argument on Christie’s part, unless you believe—even at this late date—that Obama has done what he has done through lack of experience. And yet Christie not only apparently said something similar earlier (the Christie quote that Muir referred to in his original question to Rubio), but he now repeated it three times in one very short paragraph.
I believe that the offensiveness (and sheer transparent stupidity, actually) of the charge was what got Rubio churning: after all, Christie was making two errors in one. The first error was that Rubio was like Obama, but the second (and actually far more important, if a person was considering Christie for the presidency) was the error that Obama’s “mistakes” were mistakes that could be chalked up to inexperience, and that Obama did not know (I can’t help but say it this way, as Rubio did) exactly what he was doing.
And yet how many of you even noticed that that paragraph of Christie’s had preceded the first of Rubio’s repetitions? I’ll confess that if I noticed it at the time, I certainly didn’t remember it after the dramatic flurry that followed. To, it seemed that Rubio had merely been repeating himself for want of a better answer.
So, let’s go to what Rubio actually said. In the first paragraph of Rubio’s reply to Christie’s charges, he explained that the issue is not just experience or lack thereof, it’s about results. In other words, governors make executive decisions, but they shouldn’t just be judged on that simple fact, but rather on the results of their decisions. This was another content argument by Rubio:
Well, I think the experience is not just what you did, but how it worked out. Under Chris Christie’s governorship of New Jersey, they’ve been downgraded nine times in their credit rating. This country already has a debt problem, we don’t need to add to it by electing someone who has experience at running up and destroying the credit rating of his state.
So, after pointing out that records count more than mere experience, and criticizing Christie’s actual record on the budget as governor, Rubio then returned to Christie’s inexperienced-Rubio-Obama comparison—which, as we have seen, Christie himself has just done several times:
But I would add this. Let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He is trying to change this country. He wants America to become more like the rest of the world. We don’t want to be like the rest of the world, we want to be the United States of America. And when I’m elected president, this will become once again, the single greatest nation in the history of the world, not the disaster Barack Obama has imposed upon us.
So, the same accusations from Christie get essentially the same answer from Rubio. What Rubio was attempting to do with all of this was to answer the classic question about Obama: knave or fool? Christie was answering “fool,” and Rubio was insisting it’s “knave,” and that the difference is vital.
Christie responded this time by completely ignoring Rubio’s point, and pivoting to what governors do and what he believes he has done as governor:
Marco, the thing is this. When you’re president of the United States, when you’re a governor of a state, the memorized 30-second speech where you talk about how great America is at the end of it doesn’t solve one problem for one person. They expect you to plow the snow. They expect you to get the schools open. And when the worst natural disaster in your state’s history hits you, they expect you to rebuild their state, which is what I’ve done.
Notice that Christie has not only ignored Rubio’s point, but Christie has suddenly introduced a process argument into what until then had been a strictly content discussion. Moving to process is a technique that people often resort to in arguments when they have no adequate answer on content. Christie’s new criticism was that Rubio has given a canned response in a debate. But Rubio has never made the suggestion that a statement in a debate, memorized or not, would solve a single problem for a single person; he was merely repeating the gist of his earlier response as a corrective to Christie’s repeating his own flawed interpretation of Obama’s actions as president.
Rubio then seized on Christie’s content argument about Christie’s snow-plowing expertise as governor, rather than choosing to answer the process twist about Rubio’s rhetoric that Christie had just thrown into the mix. Rubio then tried once again to get Christie to finally respond to Rubio’s previous content charge about Obama’s real aims, or even to acknowledge it. So it was a two-pronged response, but both parts were about content (notice how he says “those are the facts”):
Chris, your state got hit by a massive snowstorm two weeks ago. You didn’t even want to go back. They had to shame you into going back…These are the facts.
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.
Rubio is fully capable of phrasing novel English sentences. The problem here was that Rubio was still so focused on content and on Christie’s failure to marshal a response about Obama that Rubio failed to make the switch to answering Christie’s process accusation.
Rubio instead would almost certainly have been more effective going to a process argument himself, for example highlighting the game Christie was playing by saying something to Christie on the order of, “You’re criticizing my style but you haven’t responded to the content of what I’m actually saying about Obama, and why it matters. You are evading the issue.” But Rubio was not thinking about the content/process distinction, and remained focused in frustration on the importance of the content.
Then Rubio tried again, rephrasing his point somewhat. This time, in an effort to explain why he’s repeating himself in seeming sound bites (the process argument), he added that the issue is important—although he might have also made still another more explicit process argument, addressing both Christie’s process allegations against him and making a process argument against Christie: “I’m repeating this not because I can’t think of other things to say, but because this is important and you’ve been repeating an error about it.”
Here’s what Rubio actually said [emphasis mine]:
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 why we have a president that passed Obamacare and the stimulus. All this damage that he’s done to America is deliberate. This is a president that’s trying to redefine this country. That’s why this election is truly a referendum on our identity as a nation, as a people. Our future is at stake.
This election is not about the past. It is about what kind of country this is going to be in the 21st century, and if we elect someone like Barack Obama, a Hillary Clinton, a Bernie Sanders or anyone like that, our children are going to be the first Americans to inherit a diminishes country. That will not happen if I’m elected.
It’s similar, but not exactly the same words, athough some are the same. This time, for example, Rubio has added something important to the speech—he has mentioned Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders as the heirs of Obama, a relevant point since Obama will not be the nominee and one of those two is likely to be. Rubio has remained focused on trying to explain that Christie is wrong, and why that matters so much, and in doing so he does launch into some repetition. Although this repetition is in response to the fact that Christie first repeated his own folly about Obama, and then ignored Rubio’s points about it, it still is a repetition that plays into Christie’s process accusation.
Then Christie responded by entirely ignoring Rubio’s content once again, and again Christie went back to the topic of what governors do versus what senators do:
CHRISTIE: You know what the shame is — you know what the shame is, Marco? The shame is that you would actually criticize somebody for showing up to work, plowing the streets, getting the trains running back on time when you’ve never been responsible for that in your entire life.
Rubio, thus prompted by Christie’s new statement, pointed out once again that Christie was derelict about snow removal (the topic Christie has once again brought up). Then Christie defended himself on that score, and they went back and forth on it for a bit. Then the following exchange occurred (with Rubio echoing Christie’s word “shame” and throwing it back at him):
RUBIO: Chris, everybody — you said you weren’t going to go back. He told everyone he wasn’t going to go back. They had to shame him into going back. And when he decided to go back, he criticized the young lady, saying, what am I supposed to do, go back with a mop and clean up the flooding?
CHRISTIE: It gets very unruly when he gets off his talking points.
RUBIO: … It’s your record, it’s not a talking point…
Here Rubio was criticizing Christie regarding his snow removal record (the sort of executive action Christie had already cited as experience relevant to the presidency, although that’s certainly not a task presidents ordinarily tackle—a content problem for Christie, but one that went unnoticed), and the exchange that followed about that topic was not a slam-dunk for Christie. So to distract listeners from the potentially damaging content, Christie again went back to process (and mockery): “It gets very unruly when he gets off his talking points.”
And Rubio again responded with the importance of content over process: “It’s your record, it’s not a talking point.”
In this exchange with Rubio, Christie—quite cleverly, in the rhetorical sense—repeatedly dodged the charges in terms of content by shifting to process. And Rubio was so focused on content that he didn’t realize he needed also to respond on the process level, and that his frustrated reiteration of his main point was feeding into Christie’s complaint about repetition. Most listeners probably did not even realize that Christie had not effectively answered Rubio’s main point about Obama, nor had Christie even made a single attempt to do so; he had merely repeated the suggestion that Obama’s errors were due to inexperience and Rubio would be similar, and that in turn could have been (and IMHO was) a large part of what was motivating Rubio to repeat himself.
Although a debate is not a courtroom, Christie’s skills at argument were honed years ago in that setting. After all, he was a federal prosecutor before he became a governor, having been appointed in 2001 by George W. Bush as U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey. However, on his appointment:
Some members of the New Jersey Bar professed disappointment at Christie’s lack of experience. At the time, he had never practiced in a federal courtroom before, and had little experience in criminal law.
By most accounts, Christie was an excellent and effective U.S. Attorney. But a look at his history before that appointment indicates that he, of all people, should know that prior experience or lack thereof is not necessarily the best way to tell how well a person will perform in a position. If lack of experience at the specific tasks of a job were all-important, Christie would have argued against his own appointment as U.S. Attorney, and he would never have had a chance to prove his mettle in that role.
Experience versus inexperience, as well as a comparison of types of experience, are valid issues to discuss and argue about in a debate. I believe that, although Rubio did take some time to defend his actual record, he should have gone into a lot more detail about that (in particular, his record in Florida as Speaker, which I don’t think many people are aware of). And although Rubio did attack Christie’s record on the budget and on snow removal, he could and should have gone into more detail on that, too. But he chose instead to focus on the issue he felt most important—which was the issue that indicated that experience isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, because despite being a two-term governor, Christie is still talking as though he’s essentially clueless about Obama, in order to score points about experience vs. inexperience being the great determiner of all.
So after hearing a rapid and heated emotional exchange in a debate, it’s always instructive to check the transcript before thinking you know what actually occurred. I realize that most people don’t, however. I realize that pivoting to a process criticism of your opponent when you have no content argument left often works, and that’s why Christie did it. I realize that Rubio does sometimes repeat himself, and he certainly did at that point. I realize that by now it’s almost certainly water over the dam.
But it’s not water over the dam for me. This is my report on what I found when I took a look, and taking a look changed my mind about what had really happened. It didn’t change my mind about its effect, though. When I state that rhetorical tricks shouldn’t win the day, I realize that I am being Hortonesque (“But it should be, it should be, it should be like that”). I realize they often do win the day, and that’s how the world works.
And please don’t think I’m saying that Rubio didn’t make an error by ignoring Christie’s process argument. He did. It was a terrifically effective argument because Rubio’s behavior played right into it. It’s just that I now have a different sense of why it happened, and I believe that the result is ironic because it was actually Rubio’s focus on an important content message that led him to his tactical error. Rubio should not only have addressed process explicitly, but should have mixed his content answers up more, and I think he’s fully capable of doing so. Everyone—everyone—who runs for office uses stump speeches, sound bites, and repetitive phrases and themes. But Rubio must now depart from that sort of thing more than the others, if he wants to gain back some of what he lost.
But it’s not just, or even mostly, about Rubio. It’s about debates themselves, and political speech, and argument. Really, if you think about it, this entire episode is a triumph of process over content.