Politics & Policy

Rubio’s Credit Cards — Where Exactly Is the Scandal?


Oh, good Lord, we’re back on this again. From yesterday’s New York Times:

A decade after he began using a Republican Party credit card for personal purchases like paving stones at his home, Senator Marco Rubio on Wednesday pledged to disclose new spending records from that account as he sought to inoculate himself against what could be his biggest liability as a presidential candidate: how he manages his finances.

The decision to release the records highlights the enduring potency of a controversy rooted in Mr. Rubio’s days as a young state representative in Florida that he and his aides thought had been put to rest with his 2010 election to the Senate.

This story has been doing the rounds for five years now, since Rubio first ran for the Senate. And now, as back then, I am struggling mightily to determine what exactly is supposed to be scandalous about it. Per the Times, the card in question was a Republican-party-linked American Express that was tied to Rubio’s “personal credit.” Primarily, it was used “for political expenses, which were covered by donations to the party.” Occasionally, however, “a few personal expenses were charged to the card as well.” Thus, when the bill came in, it contained a mixture of outlays that needed to be carefully sifted through.

And the scandal is . . . what? Did the GOP pick up the tab for those personal charges? Did a group of secret donors bankroll Rubio’s home expenditures? Did Rubio and his wife benefit from a line of untaxable private income?

Nah. Not even close. Rather, as the Times flatly notes, Rubio made sure to identify all of

the personal purchases and ultimately paid for them himself. He wrote a monthly check to the credit card company to cover the personal costs, and the party wrote a check to cover the political ones, according to his staff.

In other words, he did what millions of Americans who work for corporations do each and every month. He didn’t borrow money. He didn’t ask his backers to pick up his personal tab. He didn’t default on his obligations. He was not, as Donald Trump proposes, “a disaster with credit cards.” Instead, he had a “company” charge card that he used occasionally for personal expenses and he settled the account at the end of the month. Unless he is lying about something — which would, of course, be a serious transgression — I can discern no story here whatsoever. Asked to investigate whether there was anything untoward about the arrangement, the Florida Ethics Commission ruled in 2012 that the charges were so much fluff. Where’s the meat?

#share#That this is a scandal only because it has been decided that it is a scandal was apparently not lost on the Times, which failed at any point in its story to explain what exactly was wrong with Rubio’s behavior. This is a problem for Rubio, the paper suggested, because he has been accused of it — not the most liberal of standards, let’s say. The “risk for Mr. Rubio,” the Times contends,

is that the credit card may become a symbol of a larger pattern of financial challenges in his recent past, including a brush with foreclosure on a second home in 2010 over late mortgage payments and the recent liquidation of a retirement account that prompted a large tax penalty.

Or, put another way: The credit card isn’t a problem per se, but the accusations might just stick in the public consciousness if they can be affixed to other, similarly weak, charges.

There are no brown envelopes; no secret transfers from the Caymans; no accusations of quid pro quo. There’s nothing.

What of those charges? Is there is any fire below the smoke? Padding out its complaint, the Times notes that the Rubios had “a brush with foreclosure on a second home in 2010 over late mortgage payments,” and liquidated “a retirement account that prompted a large tax penalty.” And . . . well, actually, that’s it. There are no brown envelopes; no secret transfers from the Caymans; no accusations of quid pro quo. There’s nothing. As far as I can see the general complaint here is that Rubio isn’t rich enough to do all that he wishes to do without tradeoffs, and that he has therefore had to make the sort of difficult financial decisions that Americans who are not as wealthy as Donald Trump have to make every day.

#related#Now, as was the case with President Obama back in 2008, we are all free to criticize Rubio for his choices. Perhaps voters will think that, the financial crisis notwithstanding, his investment in a second home was incompetent. Perhaps they will consider as unwise his decision to stretch his resources to send his kids to private schools. Perhaps they will believe that he shouldn’t have bought a boat directly after receiving his book advance. Perhaps they will perceive him to be too confident in his future earning potential. That’s fine; in our society, we judge each other constantly. But it would be a mistake to confuse what is tasteless or foolhardy for what is scandalous or illegal, and nothing in the Times’s piece suggests that Rubio has done anything that even approaches corruption. Wake me up when the scandal arrives.

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