Call it “watergate” or maybe Marco Rubio’s watershed moment. The Florida senator’s awkward sip from a water bottle in the midst of a nationally televised address Tuesday (and how he handled the aftermath) means one of two things, depending on your perspective: He’s either totally ready for the national spotlight or he needs some time to condition. And hydrate.
In the midst of the biggest political moment of his life, Rubio was visibly parched. And in front of those millions of viewers, he stopped his speech and reached for a bottle of water. These State of the Union responses can be like a national try-out for a young politician. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was panned for a stilting delivery in 2009. His buzz quickly died down. Rep. Paul Ryan gave the response in 2012 and found himself as Mitt Romney’s running mate some months later.
Politics – especially national politics – can be about impressions and moments. And while he is today the senator from Florida, there’s little doubt Rubio, 41, has his eyes set on higher office.
Argument: The Water Bottle Means Rubio is Not Ready
This wasn’t Rubio’s first speech. And it wasn’t his first nationally televised speech either. He spoke before Mitt Romney and Clint Eastwood at the Republican National Convention in August. Eastwood’s interview of an empty chair – another Internet-fueled moment – overshadowed a very strong showing by Rubio, who showcased his parent’s immigrant story and his conservative world view. After that night, Rubio and his staff knew what to expect. They were giving the only official Republican response (unless you count the pre-taped, water free response Rubio recorded in Spanish). They should have been all set. If you’re going to be the face for your whole party, you have to put your best face forward. And hydrate.
It was a single moment in a long speech that otherwise effectively laid out Rubio’s view for how conservative, more limited government, is better for the people in his Miami neighborhood. But the moment took on a life of its own in the meme-obsessed Twitter age. There were mocking .gifs and Twitter handles like @rubioh20bottle and @gopwaterbottle and @thirstysenator. People around the water cooler were talking Wednesday about the water bottle, not his conservative ideas. “Watergate,” as some people have called it, was a self-inflicted wound. A prime time swing and a miss. A fourth quarter choke.
Argument: The Water Bottle Means Rubio is Ready
Except Rubio didn’t really miss. And he didn’t really choke. He responded almost immediately, but in a very un-politician way, by poking fun at himself. He posted a picture of the water bottle on his own Twitter feed. And appearing on Good Morning America, after a discussion about government spending, gun violence and immigration, when George Stephanopoulos asked Rubio about his very visible sip of water Tuesday night, he jokingly reached off-camera for a bottle of water.
“I needed water, what am I going to do” Rubio told Stephanopoulos, with a broad, easy grin on his face. “God has a funny way of reminding us we’re human,” he said.
With his desire and plan for immigration reform is already viewed as Republicans’ hope to win over Latinos, and with his evangelism for limited government setting people free and his ability to wax on about mid-90s hip hop could be Republicans’ hope to win over young people. By running into the gaffe – all politicians have gaffes, after all – Rubio, showed himself to be a savvy navigator of the Internet and an ability to comfortably scramble out of the pocket, to borrow another sports metaphor.
So – Marco Rubio: ready or not? Give us your thoughts in the comments section.