Don't apologize, Marco Rubio

Some folks are heading to the fainting couch over Sen. Marco Rubio’s inclusion of personal insults against Donald Trump on the campaign trail. He’s mocked his spray tan, his little hands, his full-length mirror at the debates and more to great cheers and laughter from his audiences.

In another campaign season, another time, this kind of rhetoric would reflect poorly on the one using it.

But this is not that time. As has been pointed out by others, Donald Trump doesn’t talk policy. He talks generalities (make America great again, build a wall, things will be huge, luxurious, fantastic…) and then throws in personal insults aimed at his opponents. Few insults are too base–John McCain is a loser because he was captured during the Vietnam War, the judge overseeing a Trump University suit is biased because he’s Hispanic, Jeb Bush is low energy, Carly Fiorina’s face is…awful, Megyn Kelly was…well, the list goes on.

So, if this is the main thrust of what Trump offers, then, yes, opponents need to fight him on that level–with humor, with a wink and a nod, but with passion. Rubio is doing that. Rubio is demonstrating–showing as well as telling–that he can stand up to a bully.

But, come the debates, he has to be prepared for the inevitable pushback. Not just from Trump but from moderators. Count on some questions being thrown his way about his new style of campaigning against Trump. And Trump himself will probably demand apologies and paint Rubio as a juvenile attacker. He needs to be prepared.

First, he shouldn’t apologize. He should look Trump square in the eye and explain: “You, sir, are the one who should apologize, for being a bully who offers nothing but con man schemes to your supporters while throwing insults at your adversaries. Since  you don’t debate policy, I’m debating you on your level on behalf of Americans who can’t stand up to you.”

Second, he should tell the moderators the same thing, and then say he wants to address policy in the debate and will stick to that as best he can, but he will not hesitate, on behalf of American voters, to go to Trump’s level when necessary — just as he would call out any bully.

The key is to emphasize he is speaking for the thousands–millions–who do not like Trump, the majority of GOP voters who, because of a divided field, won’t vote for Trump and haven’t voted for him in the elections to date. He speaks for them, not just himself. He’s giving voice to their frustration and, yes, disgust at a bully and con artist trying to take over their movement, their party and their country.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.