So, the real story of the Rubio photoshop incident, wherein the Cruz campaign circulated a doctored photo of a smiling Marco shaking hands with President Obama, is that the Republican party is so far gone that the very idea of a sitting senator meeting the President is enough to send a campaign tailspinning into sputtering agony. That’s nuts.
Horrors! According to Mediate, the Cruz campaign has responded to this with normal maturity. “If Rubio has a better picture of him shaking hands with Barack Obama I’m happy to swap it out,” says a spokesman. Because, you know, it is hideous to think that a Senator might ever do his job and work with the President to pass laws.
In terms of political tricks, though, this is a fine one. It’s ok to try to tie your opponent to something awful- in this case, parts of the TPP- and it is more than ok to make them look ridiculous. It’s called, delightfully, ratfucking: the dirty tricks of politics. And ratfucking, to an extent, is fantastic.
Now, to be clear, there are levels where it is abhorrent. Watergate. LBJ having a man inside the Goldwater campaign, gleefully reporting their every strategy (as chronicled in Perlstein’s Before the Storm). Even this cycle, Ted Cruz lying about Carson running after Iowa crossed the line. Anything that interfers with the basic mechanisms of democracy isn’t a trick; its a crime against the system.
But stuff like the photoshopped image…yes, we’d love an election to be entirely about ideas and valor and courage and decency, but they never have been, and never will be, and that’s why ratfucking serves a very valuable purpose. To quote my friend and former blog contributor Hollywood Mark Perrone, “making the other guy sweat and stammer is evilly fun. It exposes him as weak in a 3 a.m. sort of way. Like, if you turn into a blubbering idiot over some photoshopping, you might not be the guy to tear up to the Iran treaty, stand up to China, repeal Obamacare, etc, etc on Day One.”
And it’s true: campaigns aren’t just about ideals. They are also about exposing character in the face of adversity (and, in the case of Ted Cruz, about showing how much of a dishonest weasel you are). Rubio doesn’t have that. The man can get knocked off-base by the slightest wind. Now, to be fair, some of the Rubio campaign’s outrage is about pushing the (very true!) “Cruz is a liar” theme, but not all of it. They are buffeted easily by any misfortune. A little bit of ratfucking exposes him as the shallow, callow, surface-level striver he really is. Say what you will about Cruz, but the man can take a political punch and use it to his advantage. (Trump, of course, lives in his own syncophantic-cosseted unreality, so normal rules don’t apply.)
I don’t know who will come in 2nd tomorrow, and therefore claim momentum. But the last few weeks have shown that, outside of the Politico world, Marco Rubio doesn’t have any idea how to react to the slightest problem. That’s enough to make us all stand and salute the glorious powers of ratfucking.
BONUS PROBABLY APOCROPHYL HISTORICAL STORY!
The quintessence of ratfuckery was either Nixon or LBJ, two of the purest pols in American history, and both tragic figures in their own way. LBJ, though, was funny about it. A story, probably untrue (which makes it the Inception of dirty political stories) is that in his first campaign for Congress, in 1936, when he was running against the incumbent, he told his aides to push a story that his opponent had sex with his farm animals. His staff was aghast- of course it wasn’t true! Was it true? It couldn’t be true. LBJ, summing up his innate political wisdom, and a gut-level knowledge of how rumors and gossip work in elections, and presaging the age where anything said would be repeated by a media eager to “report the controversy!”, said “No, but let’s make the son-0f-a-bitch deny it.”