Marco Rubio’s Painful Encounter With a Gay Voter Perfectly Illustrates His Robot Problem

Marco Rubio listens to Timothy Kierstead during a campaign stop in Manchester, New Hampshire, Feb. 8, 2016. 

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio walked into a restaurant in Manchester, New Hampshire, expecting to charm GOP-friendly voters. But, as the New York Times’ Michael Barbaro reports, the cheery vibes turned sour when Rubio started chatting with Timothy Kierstead, a gay married man who was dining with his husband and mother.

“Why do you want to put me back in the closet?” Kierstead demanded.

“I don’t,” Rubio responded. “You can live any way you want. I just believe marriage is between one man and one woman.”

Kierstead told Rubio that he had been married for “a long time.” He then asserted that, by arguing vehemently for the rollback of marriage rights of gay couples, Rubio was trying “to say we don’t matter.”

“No, I just believe marriage is between one man and one woman,” Rubio said again. “I think that’s what the law should be. And if you disagree, you should have the law changed by a legislature.”

Rubio patted Kierstead on the shoulder, telling him “I respect your view,” then walked away.

“Typical politician,” Kierstead said loudly as Rubio shuffled off. “Walk away!”

This exchange beautifully illustrates much of what Marco Rubio lacks as a campaigner and politician. During Saturday night’s GOP debate, Rubio repeated the same memorized line four times, proving that he struggles to maintain any semblance of poise when he is pushed off script. Many in the media quickly labeled him “RubioBot,” mocking him as a short-circuiting, repetitious robot. Then, on Monday, RubioBot glitched again, inexplicably repeating a portion of his stump speech that he had just concluded.

The obvious RubioBot moment during the gay marriage exchange was the repetition of the “one man, one woman” line: Confronted with a genuine, substantive dispute with a real voter, Rubio simply fell back on a talking point (twice). But the subtler, more revealing RubioBot moment occurred after Rubio had repeated his memorized line and realized the situation required a slightly more sophisticated response. So Rubio lectured Kierstead with another memorized line: “If you disagree, you should have the law changed by a legislature.”

Here’s the thing: The New Hampshire legislature passed a law to allow same-sex marriage in 2009. It took effect Jan. 1, 2010, more than six years ago. Both houses of the legislature approved the law, then the governor signed it. It was the epitome of democracy. Rubio, who has been campaigning in the state for quite a while now, should have known that. Instead he responded to Kierstead with a canned line that revealed his ignorance on a topic of great importance to myriad New Hampshirites. In the process, he came across, once again, as a robot.

It’s easy to understand the bind Rubio found himself in on Monday. Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, the GOP talking point on marriage equality has changed: Rather than rail against same-sex marriage itself, Republicans now prefer to criticize Obergefell’s “judicial activism,” arguing that the states should decide the marriage question democratically. The problem with this line is that it leaves Republicans in an awkward position with regard to states that did enact same-sex marriage through legislation. If they praise the law, they sound like a liberal. If they criticize it, they reveal that what they really dislike is same-sex marriage, not just the rulings permitting it.

Instead of trying to resolve this tension—which GOP candidate John Kasich has done extraordinarily well—Rubio dredged up an insensitive, inapposite debate line. He might as well have been reading it off a flashcard pulled from the wrong pile. BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins reported on Tuesday that “Rubio is known to friends, allies, and advisers for a kind of incurable anxiousness—and an occasional propensity to panic in moments of crisis, both real and imagined.” That seems to be what happened here. Faced with a voter’s disagreement, Rubio panicked and crashed. The malfunction provided yet more evidence that the callow candidate just isn’t the brilliant campaigner that his establishment boosters wish him to be.