The current accepted wisdom is that Senator Marco Rubio’s showing in the last New Hampshire debate ranked among the worst in the era of televised presidential debates (post-1960). Indeed polling numbers indicated his stature took a tumble as a result of his performance. Can he recover? History suggests while a daunting task, it is possible. Consider the five episodes that rank on the disaster scale with Rubio’s.
1. “Oops”—Governor Rick Perry in the 2012 GOP primary debates. A one-time front-runner, the governor never recovered, being forced from the race in 2012 and never gained traction in 2016. His inability to recall the agencies he had pledged to cut fed the image of a man not intellectually up to the challenge of the presidency. Short of discovering a new version of differential calculus, it may have been impossible for the governor to prove that he was smart. Wearing glasses, his 2016 affectation, was inadequate to the task.
2. “You’re no Jack Kennedy”—Lloyd Bentsen’s put down of Dan Quayle in the 1988 VP debate is another instance of a candidate going down for the count based on suspicions of stupidity. As with Perry, Quayle had a heck of a task to prove his intellectual bona fides, a task rendered more difficult by several miscues during his four years in office.As with Perry, he too never recovered, as witnessed by his negligible showing when he ran for the White House in 2000.
3. Ford Frees Eastern Europe—In 1976, Gerry Ford declared that Eastern Europe was not under Soviet domination, a fact that might have come as a bit of a surprise to the millions living behind the Iron Curtain. Ford meant to say that the US did not acknowledge that said domination was a permanent fact of life, but he bungled his words. Worse, he kept trying to defend his malapropism for days after that second of three debates. He did recover in the third and made a spirited run in the campaign’s closing days, and came to a near dead heat with Jimmy Carter. The miscue clearly cost him, but arguably not fatally given the closeness of the race.
4. Reagan’s halting uncertainty in the first 1984 debate with Walter Mondale—The president was so off his game everyone wondered if he was too old and feeble to the task at hand. However the Gipper had two things going for him that Perry and Quayle did not:a huge reservoir of good will from his prior years of service; and his command performance in the very next debate where he masterfully turned the age issue on his opponent, Fritz Mondale. Having recovered, Reagan went on to a landslide of epic proportions.
5. Nixon-Kennedy—Nixon lost the first of four debates due to his physical persona next to the tanned a healthy-looking JFK. Nixon was pasty, sweaty, gaunt, stubbly. Note, Nixon’s gaffe was one of appearance, not substance. There was never any question as to his intellect. Indeed, listeners on the radio felt that Nixon had won the debate. As with Ford, Nixon acquitted himself well in the subsequent three debates, ran a near dead heat with Kennedy, and came back to win the presidency in 1968.
So in two and possibly three (the Ford near miss) instances, candidates recovered from self-inflicted wounds. The lesson for Senator Rubio: Doubts as to intelligence are harder to recover from but possible. It will take flawless technical mastery of detail in the next round of debates for Marco to put the lie to questions as to his experience or mental fitness. If he makes subsequent gaffes however, as was the case with Quayle, or does not display mastery of detailed policy as with Perry, he may never recover. If he campaigns vigorously (Ford), dispenses wit (Reagan) and intellect (Nixon) this could amount to no more than a tempest in a teapot. Which will be wonderful for the senator, as long as it is not a Teapot Dome.