It's not about the boat. From Morning Joe to Twitter, defenders of GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio are dismissing an important New York Times investigation into his personal and professional finances over two words: luxury speedboat.
This is the political equivalent of shouting, "Ignore the burning forest. Check out this tree!"
In their latest dispatch from Rubio's home state of Florida, Steve Eder and Michael Barbaro reported Tuesday that the freshman senator "stands out for his youth, his meteoric political rise—and for the persistent doubts about his financial management, to the point that Mitt Romney's presidential campaign flagged the issue when vetting Mr. Rubio as a possible running mate in 2012."
They continued: "He sometimes intermingled personal and political money—using a state Republican Party credit card years ago to pay for a paving project at his home and for travel to a family reunion, and putting his relatives on campaign payrolls." Drawing from a story they published May 9, Barbaro and Eder reminded readers that Rubio is "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."
Important information—lost to anybody who chooses to be distracted by a distorted reading of these two paragraphs higher in the story:
In speeches, Mr. Rubio, a Florida Republican, spoke of his prudent plan for using the cash to finally pay off his law school loans, expressing relief that he no longer owed "a lady named Sallie Mae," as he once called the lender.
But at the same time, he splurged on an extravagant purchase: $80,000 for a luxury speedboat, state records show. At the time, Mr. Rubio confided to a friend that it was a potentially inadvisable outlay that he could not resist. The 24-foot boat, he said, fulfilled a dream.
In places like southern Florida and my homestate of Michigan, an $80,000 fishing boat is a reasonable middle-class aspiration. Call it a "luxury speedboat" and you're swimming home. On the influential MSNBC show, the "Morning Joe" panel mocked the Times' boat reference, even as host Joe Scarborough raised the issue of finances. "This is the vulnerability from Marco," he said. "I don't want to paint over all of this." Indeed, to focus solely on the newspaper's lack of flyover-state connectedness is to miss the salient points of the story, which include:
1. In his personal life, Rubio is a reckless spender. True, that puts him in the unfortunate mainstream of America today, and nobody should claim his personal finances disqualify him for the presidency. But this is a part of Rubio's makeup worth knowing, particularly if you're a voter worried about reckless government spending, even though you might ultimately determine he would do a better job with the people's books than his own.
2. Rubio blurs the line between political and personal finances. He's not alone of course: See Bill and Hillary Clinton. Still, profiting from public service erodes trust in the political system and exposes political leaders to corrupting influences and even blackmail. From the Barbaro-Eder story in May:
As Mr. Rubio has ascended in the ranks of Republican politics, Mr. Braman has emerged as a remarkable and unique patron. He has bankrolled Mr. Rubio's campaigns. He has financed Mr. Rubio's legislative agenda. And, at the same time, he has subsidized Mr. Rubio's personal finances, as the rising politician and his wife grappled with heavy debt and big swings in their income.
Now, with Mr. Rubio vaulting ahead of much of the Republican presidential field, Mr. Braman is poised to play an even larger part and become Mr. Rubio's single biggest campaign donor, with an expected outlay of approximately $10 million for the senator's pursuit of the White House.
If you're like me—and want to puke every time you learn of another fat cat enriching the Clintons while pressing government business—the Rubio-Braman relationship must at least make you queasy. Unless your outrage is selective and cynically placed.
Pretending the Times investigation is about a luxury boat is reductive. It's the kind of shameless spin that enables the worst instincts of modern politicians and the billionaires who own them. It's so—dare I say?—Clintonian.