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Friday, February 22, 2013

Marco Rubio, Dry Mouth, and the Invisible Primary

            Returning to the real world after our trip to D.C. was rough but necessary. Everyone knows that unlike the inauguration, everyday events in D.C. are no fairytale. Life is messy no matter where you live.
            So I was back in my campus office at the end of the first week of the second term, when my friend/colleague Sally came knocking on my door.

            “I need to ask you something,” she said.
            I didn’t even look up, because Sally and I are always asking each other for things, and I didn’t notice the urgency in her voice right away.

            “What’s up?” I asked, still focussed on editing the PowerPoint for my afternoon lecture.
            “Do you remember Brad Nelson, my grad student in public policy?”

            I did remember him. Brad had been Sally’s TA for the last year, and he was working on his thesis partially under her advisement.
            “Of course. Why?”

            With her hands clenched together and hanging at her waist, she took a giant step towards me. “Will you be second reader for his thesis? I have to bow out.” Now I did look up, and her face was sort of pinched and red, like what she said was causing her pain.

            I paused, cautious and skeptical. “Isn’t the subject of his thesis subject really more your area of expertise than mine?”
            She shrugged her tense shoulders. “It could be yours too. His dissertation is on public opinion, policy development, and their effects on the American presidency.”

            “That’s pretty broad.” I looked at her, and she stood there, uncomfortable as a televised speaker desperate for a glass of water. I longed to put her out of her misery and give her a drop or two, but it wasn’t that easy.  Agreeing to be a second reader is a major time commitment, and I barely know Brad.
            I had to ask. “Why do you need to bow out?”

            She took a sharp inhale. “I can’t say.”
            I widened my eyes and gave her an incredulous look, and she hung her head. “I’m sorry, Lucy. I hate to put you in this position. I’d tell you if I could, but I can’t, so please… Say you’ll at least meet with him?”

            I tilted my head to the side and offered up half a smile. “Sure. I guess I can meet with him. But I’m not committing to anything more than that." Sally and I set up a time for the following week, and she said she’d let Brad know.
        That night as we were preparing for bed I told Monty about it. He reclined against his pillow, but spoke with conviction.

            “Are you crazy? You’re always complaining about how busy you are! And if Sally won’t even tell you why she’s stepping aside, I’d run the other way, as fast as possible.”
            “I know…” I sighed.  I was next to him, sitting up, and fighting the urge to collapse into sleep before I explained my case. “But Sally seemed, I don’t know, distressed. Like she wouldn’t be asking me if she didn’t absolutely have to. Besides, it’s hard to convince anyone to be your thesis advisor. I feel bad for this guy.”

            “But you barely know him. And doesn’t he already have an advisor?”
            “He needs two. Anyway, all I said is that I’d meet with him.”

            Monty stretched and rolled over, trying to find a good resting position. With his eyes closed, he said, “Well, be careful. Don’t get yourself into something you’ll regret.”
            I gave him a gentle kick with my socked foot. “Thanks, Bossy.”

            He opened his eyes and rolled towards me. “Hey. You asked.”
            “Umm, no. I don’t think I did.”

Why is it that men always equate talking about your day to asking for advice?  I said nothing more, gave him a kiss on the cheek, turned the lights out, and settled in for the night. But my mind wouldn’t slow down. Does campaigning ever really stop?
            It seems impossible to believe that the 2012 election was over a mere three months ago, because, for better or for worse, the 2016 election is already underway.  Maybe it’s not obvious to everyone, but the “invisible primary” began even as the last of the streamers were getting picked up and thrown out on the morning of November 7th.

            Things didn’t always happen this fast. But in the 1970s, post-Watergate, Congress had this idea that they could and should remove corruption from politics. This resulted in the FEC and then a Supreme Court case because James Buckley felt that his rights to expression and due process were being limited. The end result was that while candidates have to disclose who their donors are, and individual contributions are limited, the court decided to strike down all limitations on campaign expenses, donations by groups, and use of candidates' personal funds.
            So insiders have the advantage, because insiders can raise a lot more money than outsiders can. With primaries getting scheduled earlier and earlier in the year, a boat load of money is needed RIGHT AWAY in the actual primary season. Candidates know they have to win in Iowa or New Hampshire so they can gain momentum, and get the press and public on their side. If they don’t, their campaigns die a quick, quiet death, the likes of Tim Pawlenty and John Huntsman. Remember them? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

            Marco Rubio has been campaigning in this invisible primary, competing for the most early donations, the most good press, and the most talent to work on his campaign, so he can win the legitimate, visible primary early and definitively. It had been going pretty well. He’s seen as a moderate, sort of, because of his views on immigration, even though his views on everything else have the Tea Party asking him to their soirees. He’s young, he’s from Florida, he can possibly attract Latino voters, and he can even reference rap lyrics and compare Tupac to Biggie Small.
            The Republicans decided HE was the guy to deliver their response to Obama’s State of the Union address, and if you’re not aware of how it went, then you’ve been living in a cave without cable. Some pundits believe Rubio’s presidential aspirations are ruined, that his now infamous water bottle moment is buried in the same graveyard as Howard Dean’s “I Have a Scream” speech, Richard Nixon’s flop sweat during the 1960s debate against Kennedy, and the Bobby Jindal impersonation of 30 Rock’s Kenneth during his own Republican response to the State of the Union back in 2009.

            I’m no Rubio fan, but I’m not ready to discount him quite yet. Uncomfortable, awkward moments are bound to happen. The real test is how you handle the fall out. Rubio’s people handled it by selling “Rubio Water Bottles” for a donation of anything between $25 to $250 to his PAC. So far, they’ve raised over $125,000.
            It remains to be seen if this will be enough to make people forget. If it will be enough to make Rubio win. But it is possible to come back.

            So I remembered this the following week when Brad Nelson sat in my office and explained his thesis to me. Tall, broad, and bald, he took up the entire room even though he fit neatly into a chair. Still, the light seemed to bounce right off of him, and his energy and enthusiasm were nearly tangible enough to touch while he expounded up Bill Clinton and political triangulation.
            I tapped a pencil against my desk, trying to resist being drawn in. But I found myself responding to his zest.

            “Your topic sounds really interesting,” I said. “I just don’t know if I’m the right person to help you.”
            He leaned forward, elbows on knees. “You won’t have to do that much. Just be second reader for a semester, that’s all.”

            “You’re in the one year program?”
            He nodded his head fervently. “Nothing against academics, but I’m not looking to teach.” He smiled self-consciously. “You probably think I’m too old to pursue this, don’t you?”

            I laughed. “Not at all. I was in my thirties when I started back.”
            He raised one eyebrow. “How old are you now?”

            Then he raised both his eyebrows. “I would have guessed you at a decade younger.”
            I smiled. “You’re very kind.” Actually, he reminded me a little bit of myself ten years ago, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. My stomach fluttered as I asked my next question. “Can you tell me what happened with Sally as your second reader? She wouldn’t say. Is there anything I need to know?” Like, why this odd, awkward situation is even happening.

            His face went blank. “No,” he replied. There was no dry mouth, no beads of sweat creeping down his forehead, no desperate grasp for a drink of water. There was no awkwardness from him at all. But why? Or more to the point, why not?
            I kept my eyes focused on him, silently compelling him to keep talking. “She didn’t give me a reason,” he said. “She just said she couldn’t continue.”

            I nodded and looked down. A setback like this could cost him so much, but it shouldn't, not when he has so much to offer.

            “Let me see your schedule again,” I said. “Let’s see what we can figure out.”



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