Memorizing your lines is a talent, too.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/getty images

Rubio's Risk of Going Off Script

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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As I watched the debate last night, I couldn’t help but think of Goldman Sachs. But not for the reason you might think.

When I was in my first year of business school, and interviewing for investment banking positions, the Career Services office had every first year student work up something known as the “Walk Me Through Your Resume” speech. It was a precisely calibrated two-minute segment in which you summarized your academic and work history, highlighting your accomplishments and explaining your goals. Told properly, it became a little hero’s tale, culminating in you fulfilling your destiny as...well, as an entry-level employee in whatever industry and company you happened to be interviewing with that morning.

The purpose of this speech wasn't to fool interviewers, most of whom had attended the same business school. Indeed, many of them opened the interview by smiling and saying “So, walk me through your resume.” No, the purpose of the speech was threefold.

First, it ensured that you didn't choke -- simply get in there and stammer, or worse, ramble.

Second, relying on a script ensured that you didn't leave out anything important.

Third, and most importantly, reciting a memorized set piece prevented you from accidentally getting yourself into trouble.

It worked most places. But not at Goldman Sachs. At Goldman Sachs, the speech backfired so badly it blew up the car.

There were two interviewers from Goldman Sachs that morning. One of them was called away at the start of the interview to take a phone call. I happily sat down and gave the other one my speech. It went off well, if I do say so myself. She smiled at the wry self-deprecation, nodded at the achievement, laughed at the little jokes. By the time I wrapped up, I thought we had reached a pretty good rapport. And then the door opened, and the other interviewer came back, smiled, sat down.

“Walk me through your resume,” she said.

 Normally, when an interviewer left, they just inserted themselves into the flow of the interview wherever it happened to be when they came back in. What to do in this situation? I couldn't give exactly the same speech, with the same stock phrases and little jokes that I had given a minute before. The proverbial icy fingers of horror gripped my heart, and I imagine that you know where this is going.

Some dreadful time later -- five minutes? 500? I can’t recall -- I found myself embroiled in a lengthy discussion of my lackluster college GPA, a fact about myself that had not, as you have probably guessed, been highlighted in the original speech. Things only went downhill from there, as my flabbergasted interviewers started trying to figure out how the hell this lackwitted slouch had even gained admission to one of the top finance schools in the country, much less dared to interview with their august employer. Eventually, mercifully, they terminated the interrogation, and I staggered out into the bleak wintry light of Chicago in January.

This is the danger of a script. When used as directed, it’s better than ad-libbing in high-pressure situations where you have only a short time to make a good impression on strangers. But if you get knocked off the script…oh, dear.

I bring this up, of course, because of Marco Rubio, who got mauled by Chris Christie last night in the Republican debate over his habit of delivering canned lines from speeches in response to debate questions. This attack has been brewing all week --arguably for longer than that, as journalists have long complained about the repetition of Rubio’s stump speech. I’ve dismissed the complaints from journalists --and will continue to, because this is the most short-sighted sort of insider myopia. Most voters will never listen to Rubio’s stump speech more than once, and they don't care that he has given those answers before. They aren’t so stupid as to assume that politicians write all-new remarks for a half-dozen campaign appearances every day, and unlike journalists, they don't think that verbal originality is the highest peak of human achievement.

But by relentlessly attacking Rubio, Christie forced him off his game. Rubio had anticipated the attack, and had a canned answer. Christie came back at him. It was a moment in which Rubio could have locked the debate away by giving Christie a withering stare and saying “Chris, Chris—is this really the best you can do? Complaining about my debating style? I’m here to talk about the issues and what we can do for the American people, not to try to impress a bunch of Washington insiders by one-upping each other over stuff that isn’t going to make one bit of difference to how I’ll conduct myself as president of the United States.”

But I’ve had 12 hours to come up with those remarks. In the moment, faced with the same dreadful choice I had 15 years ago, Rubio decided that ad-libbing was dangerous. (He was right!) So then, incredibly, he did something even worse: he repeated himself, nearly word for word. Three or four or five times. I’m afraid I lost count, as it was too painful to watch.

Substantively, I don’t think this matters. The reaction from journalists on Twitter was just slightly overapocalyptic, as if getting rattled for a few minutes actually had some bearing on Rubio’s fitness for the presidency, or even his ability to compete in the general. Everyone in these campaigns hews closely to a script -- indeed, the funniest moment for me last night was when Christie, still riding high on his earlier victory, tried to launch exactly the same attack on Rubio again, using largely the same words. No one in modern times ad-libs their way to a nomination; even the attacks on scripts are themselves carefully scripted. And anyone can get shaken if they’ve been told to stick to a script, seen it work for them and then suddenly got knocked out of it.

And even politically, I’m not sure how much damage was done. The primary is two days away -- and those two days in between are going to be dominated by Super Bowl coverage. Rubio’s gaffe is going to be competing with pregame analysis and viral ads for screen time, even in New Hampshire. Moreover, the voters in New Hampshire are more likely than most to have actually watched the whole debate, where Rubio made a strong showing after his initial dreadful performance.

Besides, the great lesson of this nomination season is that the stuff that strikes journalists and political professionals as disqualifying -- wildly implausible campaign promises, calling yourself a socialist, making outrageously sexist remarks -- often plays very differently with primary voters than we expect.

That said, two days before a primary in which you were expected to make a strong showing is obviously a very bad moment to choke.  And if Rubio does survive this, he is going to need to learn from it, fast, because having seen this work once, other candidates are going to try it. He either needs a deeper script, with four or five potential answers to each question, or he needs to practice ad-libbing without rambling or embarrassing himself.

Because if he can’t, he’s going to have to start memorizing another kind of speeches: the kind that begins “I’d like to congratulate my opponent on securing the nomination of the Republican Party.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net