Politics & Policy

Will Voters Buy Donald Trump’s New Attack on Rubio’s Voting Record?

(Sean Rayford/Getty)

Among the many turbulent moments that Donald Trump contributed to the September 16th Republican-primary debate, one in particular stood out. “I,Trump griped after Marco Rubio delivered a particularly withering put-down, “am not sitting in the United States Senate with, by the way, the worst voting record there is today . . . I’m a businessman. I am doing business transactions.”

At the time, Trump intended this line as a panicked explanation for his ignorance of foreign affairs. But, in the weeks that have followed, he has begun to use it as a cudgel. In the last week alone, he has suggested caustically that Rubio, “has the worst voting record in the United States Senate” (Morning Joe); “has the worst attendance rating in the U.S. Senate” (a South Carolina speech); has “the No. 1 worst attendance record” (the same speech); “has worst voting record in Senate” (Twitter); has the “worst attendance record in Senate- rarely there to vote on a bill!” (also Twitter); and — I imagine you’re getting the picture by now —  is “a lightweight senator with the worst voting record in Senate. Lazy!” (Twitter once again). At this rate, it cannot be long before it makes it into his routine presentation on the stump.

The million dollar question: “Is the claim true”? Does Rubio in fact have “the worst voting record in the Senate”? The answer is not quite, no. Rubio’s attendance has certainly been poor — especially this year, as he runs for president. But the overall prize for playing hooky goes not to the junior senator from Florida, but to Ted Cruz, a man whom Trump has notably declined to attack. “If we look at career truancy,” PolitiFact reported on September 17, “Cruz has a worse attendance record than Rubio.” More importantly, perhaps, Cruz has missed votes that actually mattered.

Trump believes that ‘you haven’t been voting in the Senate enough is a reasonably potent critique. But do GOP primary voters feel the same way?

That Trump has focused in on Rubio rather than Cruz is, of course, his prerogative. Like everybody else, he is free to cast his opprobrium in whichever direction he sees fit. Perhaps he thinks that it is Rubio and not Cruz who poses the bigger threat to his White House aspirations, and that Rubio is thus the most deserving of his ire? Perhaps he considers that he and Cruz are in a de facto truce of sorts, and that it would therefore be impolite to make hay out of Cruz’s many absences? Perhaps, as PolitiFact suggests, Trump was in fact referring not to career averages, but to this year’s attendance records alone. Either way, I wonder if somebody can answer a question for me: Why exactly does any of this matter? Clearly Trump believes that “you haven’t been voting in the Senate enough” is a reasonably potent critique. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be leveling it over and over again. But do GOP primary voters feel the same way? Far more interesting to me than how many minor votes Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz have missed since they were elected is what they have done while they’ve been in Washington. With the exception of his many sharp-elbowed references to the Gang of Eight bill, Trump has limited his criticism of Rubio’s record to quantity and not to quality. That’s notable.

#share#Why? Well, because it tells us that Trump understands that he is not on solid enough ideological ground to go after his opponents’ voting records per se. Once you put the immigration disaster to one side, Marco Rubio actually has a remarkably conservative voting history — the sort of history that Trump would presumably love to be able to point to. Don’t believe me? Just ask the trackers. In 2012, at the end of his first two years in office, Rubio was given a “100 percent” rating by the American Conservative Union — an honor that went to only eight percent of his Senate colleagues. A couple of years later, after the immigration contretemps had played out in full, the ACU downgraded him to “just” 98 percent. Heritage Action has been similarly impressed. At present, Rubio enjoys a 92 percent positive score from the outfit, which is not only dramatically better than the average Republican senator (61 percent), but better also than all but one of Rubio’s fellow candidates for president. (That “one,” as you might imagine, is Ted Cruz.)

#related#Presumably, there will be some conservatives who consider that the above information does not so much let Rubio off the hook as make an excellent case for the unflappability of Ted Cruz. And perhaps it does! Cruz, after all, did not make a mistake on immigration, and, from some rightward-leaning perspectives at least, has a pretty much perfect record on all other fronts as well. What it does not do, however, is to suggest that Rubio is a “moderate” or that Donald Trump is his superior in any way — both of which contentions are implied in Trump’s critique. Au contraire: Over the last five years, Rubio has amassed a consistently conservative record that has on its face a single major blot — a blot, it should be said, which Rubio now claims to regret. Donald Trump, by contrast, has compiled a long and ugly history as a cynical “foot in both camps” moderate, to which he has now added six months of embarrassingly ersatz “conservatism.” If we are to be encouraged to more closely examine the political records on offer, whose do we think will come out ahead?

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