We already knew Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, 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.”
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The Times is especially exercised about Rubio’s purchase of what it terms a “luxury speedboat” for $80,000. (Politico says it’s just “an offshore fishing boat.”) The Times says that Rubio “splurged”; but given that he had just been paid $800,000 to write a book, some splurging seems appropriate.
I wouldn’t have done it myself. But then owning a boat isn’t a dream of mine, as it was for Rubio. I also would’ve started saving for retirement earlier, so that the interest had longer to compound. But again, I’m not Rubio.
And it wasn’t unreasonable for Rubio to make these choices given his circumstances. Out of law school and hoping to enter politics, he presumably thought that he’d have a bright financial future – an assumption that seems highly likely to pan out, whether or not he wins the presidency. He could well have concluded that even if he failed in politics, he’d be able to make money practicing law.
A similar calculation could make sense of his recent decision to liquidate some retirement savings and pay a tax penalty. He said that he needed the money to replace his refrigerator and air conditioner. It may also help pay the family’s bills during his presidential run – after which, again, he'll be fine.
I wouldn’t defend every financial choice Rubio has made, and reporters may yet dig up information that makes his judgment look worse. His relationship with his most important campaign donor, Norman Braman, is worth knowing more about. But the information the Times just gave us isn’t especially damning.
And what do Rubio’s spending habits tell us about his fitness for the presidency? We’re supposed to conclude that if he can’t handle his own finances he'll mess up the country’s. But we have more pertinent information about his fiscal judgment. We already know, for example, that his tax plan is a big revenue loser. (It’s the luxury speedboat of tax plans.)
As far as the election goes, the Times report will do more to help Rubio than to hurt him. Conservatives are concluding that a newspaper most of them distrust has it in for him – especially since this story came out just a few days after a feeble one about Rubio’s traffic tickets. The senator is already capitalizing on that perception to raise money for his campaign.
Many voters will also see something of themselves in Rubio’s economic history. They too have racked up debts and not paid them off for years. They too have had to scramble to come up with money for an air conditioner. Rubio has offered more tax relief for middle-class families than most Republicans, and more solutions for financing higher education. Maybe that’s in part because he has a better sense of middle-class anxieties than politicians with more impressive financial histories.
A candidate’s finances are fair game for reporters to write about and voters to judge. I suspect, though, that the politicians whose finances deserve the most scrutiny are the ones who have a net worth that is suspiciously high – and not those who, like most people, have had some ups and downs in life.
Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a senior editor for National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.