It's rare to see a candidacy collapse onstage, which is what made tonight's GOP debate in New Hampshire genuinely newsworthy. When Rick Perry did it last cycle, he wasn't a serious contender. Everybody thought Marco Rubio was -- until tonight.
His "Obama is deliberately destroying America" robo-schpiel is already legend, thanks to Chris Christie's onstage deconstruction. But what nobody is pointing out (yet, at least) is that it was disqualifying not only because it showed his unreadiness for prime time as a debater, but also because of the content of his argument.
Think about it. First, he decided to place all his chips on attacking Obama -- who is not running. Sure, it's commonplace to whack the opposite party's incumbent, and a little of that is par for the course. But Rubio was supposed to be the hopemeister of this cycle -- indeed, the Republican Obama of 2008. He was positioned as the face of the future. Why is he singing this backward-looking apocalyptic rag? Why is he trying to out-Trump Trump in direness? It's completely off-brand. It doesn't make him look serious. It makes him look hysterical. It's a downer.
Second, and most important, he is trying to carve out a niche among Obama-attackers by attacking him not as incompetent, but as evil. An argument about incompetence might work with a population feeling generally cranky (and the tack Trump has successfully taken). But Rubio is impugning Obama's motives, his patriotism, his love of country. He basically staked his candidacy on that proposition, and it's utterly foolish.
Nowhere near a majority of Americans -- I suspect even a majority of Republicans -- believes Obama is deliberately looking to weaken the country or to undercut its standing. That's an argument that only works in a small subset of the Republican base, and it's an argument guaranteed to alienate virtually all Democrats and independents. Rubio decided early in this campaign to write "neocon hawk" in bright letters on the tabula rasa of his empty slate -- but tonight showed that he has completely misread how to play that hand. Indeed, he has fatally overplayed it.
This is political stupidity of the first order. Even if he hadn't repeated it again and again in robo-call fashion, the argument itself disqualifies him as a serious candidate. Christie showed that he hasn't got the performance chops to be the nominee. Rubio's decision to make this argument in the first place is ipso facto proof of the absence of political judgment.
What tonight's meltdown does in the near term is destroy the very meta-possibility Rubio seemed to represent after Iowa -- that one of the "mainstream" candidates would emerge from the pack to become a serious challenger to Trump and Cruz. Now it's 52-card pickup again. The Great Tan Hope has fallen on his face, so there will be more weeks of scrambling among Jeb, Kasich, Christie and Rubio. The basic structure of the field -- with Trump at the top -- will not be challenged. And there's nobody running who has anything like the charisma to knock him off.
Did Christie help himself tonight? A little bit, I'd say, but not enough to matter. He did God's work in puncturing Rubio's bubble, but destroying the one beacon of hope won't win him any love among Republicans (though he probably helped himself among Dems, for whatever that's worth).
All in all, it was an excellent night for Hillary. It's patently clear that she will chew up and spit out whoever emerges from this squalid farce.
It's also clear, maugre the pundits whose livelihood depends on pretending there's a serious horse race underway, that nobody can go broke underestimating the sanity of the current Republican Party.