The Corner

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

In response to Leon Kass’s Latest

I agree with much of Ramesh’s piece on Marco Rubio’s finances, and I have a couple more thoughts to add to them. Ramesh writes:

We already knew Senator Marco Rubio was a risk-taker. If he were a cautious man, he wouldn’t have challenged a sitting governor for a Senate nomination in 2010, and he wouldn’t have launched a presidential campaign when his former patron Jeb Bush was likely to run. Now the New York Times reports that Rubio is a risk-taker when it comes to personal finances, too.

The story is remarkably moralistic, repeatedly characterizing as “inadvisable” and “imprudent” decisions that are quite common and, in context, not especially dangerous. It revealed a candidate who resembles the people he hopes to govern more than he does many of his rivals.

Like roughly 70 percent of college graduates, Rubio finished school in debt. He didn’t save much money through his 20s and 30s. Now 44, he only recently began accumulating savings: He has put away some money for his kids’ education, but hasn’t yet saved much for his retirement. This isn’t an unusual financial trajectory, and it’s odd for the Times to call Rubio’s student loan debt “a deep financial hole of his own making.”

I agree with Ramesh’s assessment here. Indeed, as Kevin points out, the ”in context” really matters. But, even if I didn’t, I would suspect nevertheless that any sustained attempt to hammer Rubio for these decisions will fail — and for exactly the same reason any sustained attempt to point out that Scott Walker didn’t finish college will fail: Namely, that most people will see something of themselves in the eyes of the accused. Leaving aside for a moment that a) the Rubio campaign will almost certainly manage to turn “your finances are a mess” into “you’re too poor,” and that b) the Democratic party is likely to field a candidate who is uniquely ill-placed to talk about financial mismanagement, it remains the case that having vaguely imperfect finances is not something on which the majority of Americans are likely to want to judge other people. For better or for worse, most people make “mistakes” with their money in their 20s and 30s. For better or for worse, many of us indulge ourselves sometimes when perhaps we shouldn’t. For better or for worse, many people learn to be adults on their way through adulthood — especially if they did not grow up around money. If the story here were that Rubio had obtained his money illegally or unethically, or that he had burdened the public with his profligacy, this critique might gain some traction. But it isn’t. So it probably won’t. In fact, Rubio’s team seem to be do everything they can to draw attention to the story.

Should it? Should we be concerned that this man might become President of the United States? (Indeed, given his pre-presidential finances, should we be concerned that Barack Obama is President of the United States?) In my view, not really, no. Rubio is already a United States Senator — that is, a member of the branch of government that controls taxation and spending — and before that he was the speaker of Florida’s House of Representatives. In consequence, the question of how he “would behave in office” is not a hypothetical one. Want to know how he would govern? Take a look at his voting record in the state and federal legislatures. It goes back fifteen years.

Most important, perhaps, is to remember that one’s attitude toward one’s personal finances and one’s attitude toward the role of government are basically incomparable. Are we really going to pretend that, say, taking out a mortgage should preclude one from opposing government borrowing? Or that buying “luxury” items on credit should determine one’s view of federal spending? I think not. Unless Rubio defaulted on his promises and obligations — and he didn’t — his actions affected nobody but him and his family. Clearly, this is not the case when it comes to the government, the long-term behavior of which implicates everybody — and at at the end of a bayonet if necessary.

There are a few questions in the Times’s piece that need answering. I would like to know the details of his having become “unusually reliant on a campaign donor, Norman Braman, a billionaire who subsidized Mr. Rubio’s job as a college instructor, hired him as a lawyer and continues to employ his wife.” I would also like to know if there was anything untoward about his using the wrong credit cards to pay for campaign expenses or utilizing his PACs to employ members of his family. But that Rubio “has long portrayed himself as a champion of financial austerity, railing against excessive government spending and runaway debt”? I couldn’t care less. He can buy ten boats as far as I care. Just don’t make me pay for them.

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