Politics & Policy

How Rubio Turned a New York Times Attack into an Asset

(Win McNamee/Getty)

When the New York Times on Tuesday became the third major publication to run a report on Marco Rubio’s spending habits and financial struggles, the Rubio campaign didn’t quibble with any of the specifics.

Instead, his team did something unorthodox: They decided not to directly refute charges that the freshman senator is a reckless spender, has drowned in debt, and has engaged in questionable financial practices. Rubio spokesman Alex Conant suggested that they’re not even a liability but rather an asset, because the senator’s financial struggles, which he’s spoken about often on the campaign trail, make him a more relatable candidate. The attacks, they say, even make Rubio look like a victim of snot-nosed elites. 

An Associated Press article on Saturday detailed Rubio’s sale of a Tallahassee home that had, for a time, fallen into foreclosure. He sold it in recent weeks for $18,000 less than the original purchase price. The AP headline: “Real Estate Dealings Have Hampered Rubio’s Finances.” Well, Conant says, Rubio can “relate to what middle-class Americans are going through.”

RELATED: It’ll Be Difficult to Attack Marco Rubio for His Finances

Rubio has already incorporated a line about it into his stump speech. “The latest one that I’m starting to hear rumblings about,” he told a crowd in Ames, Iowa, on Saturday, “is that Marco Rubio’s not rich enough to be president.” The senator used the unwanted attention to attack the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton: “Well, it’s true, I don’t make $11 million a year giving speeches to special-interest groups, and it’s true that my family’s foundation hasn’t raised $2 billion, a lot of it from foreign entities with business before the State Department.”

#related#These attacks seem to be something the Rubio campaign, and perhaps Rubio himself, have long expected. It helps to explain why Rubio has openly talked about his financial struggles, if not his high-end purchases, on the campaign trail and in his writing. Political memoirs always include tales of struggling, but for Rubio, who is just 44, that struggling is rather recent. In his book American Son (2008), Rubio wrote that, at the outset of his political career, he “agonized over our monthly budget, and searched for expenses we could live without.” He notes that he and his wife, Jeanette, were living in his mother-in-law’s house. “I had given up my car,” he wrote. “Still, we were struggling to make ends meet.”

Rubio has also been slammed before for sloppy personal and professional bookkeeping. “Marco Rubio’s personal finances clash with call for fiscal discipline,” the Tampa Bay Times wrote during his run for the Senate in 2010. A Republican consultant said at the time that his spending and debts amounted to “a pattern of behavior in which he’s not good at controlling his own money or the money of others.”

So when the Times report surfaced, detailing Rubio’s purchase of an $80,000 boat and his lease of a $50,000 Audi, quoting financial experts tut-tutting his irresponsibility, Rubio’s team was ready to strike back. They cast the Times piece as a rich man’s attack on the middle class. The subject line of the e-mail that came from Rubio’s press team: “Elitist New York Times calls Marco’s Student Loan Debts ‘A Deep Financial Hole of His Own Making.’”

It seems to have paid off, literally. A fundraising plea from the Rubio campaign noting that “the Times is out with a story suggesting that I’m not rich enough to be president!” raised over $100,000.

Even liberal journalists seemed uninterested in playing up the Times’s revelations. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes took to Twitter on Tuesday to say he’s “starting to think Rubio has some plant in the NYT and these supposed ‘hit jobs’ on him are false flags intended to make him look sympathetic.’” (The Times also devoted a story last week to Rubio’s and his wife’s driving record.)

Whatever role they played in getting this reaction, it seems to be what the Rubio campaign was hoping for. They also succeeded in eliding the more substantive charge: that somebody who hasn’t stayed judiciously on top of his own personal finances may not be equipped to manage the country’s.

“My wife and I every month make sure that we can afford to send our four children, and I’m proud of this, to receive a private, Christian-based education,” Rubio said Saturday. “I, until recently, had student-loan debt that I paid off with my book, An American Son, which is now available in paperback.” The crowd laughed. All of this, Rubio communications director Conant says, is ultimately something that will “make him more appealing.”

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