If you learned that a presidential candidate had been less than sensible with his own personal finances, would that make you less inclined to vote for him? It probably would, even if you’d rather not admit it; after all, if nothing else it’s one more mark on the negative side of the ledger.
But how much should it matter, if at all? Unless we’re talking about someone who’s being blackmailed by the mob over seven-figure gambling debts, should we care if a candidate doesn’t handle his own money all that well?
That’s the question raised by an article in today’s New York Times about Marco Rubio, one that contains a number of colorful details about the Florida senator’s financial history:
A review of the Rubio family’s finances — including many new documents — reveals a series of decisions over the past 15 years that experts called imprudent: significant debts; a penchant to spend heavily on luxury items like the boat and the lease of a $50,000 2015 Audi Q7; a strikingly low savings rate, even when Mr. Rubio was earning large sums; and inattentive accounting that led to years of unpaid local government fees.Mr. Rubio has acknowledged missteps: using personal credit cards to pay for his campaigns (a bad idea, he said); appointing his wife, Jeanette, as a treasurer of a political action committee (ill advised, he said); and using the party money for the reunion trip (an accident, he said). Mr. Rubio, in his 2012 memoir, “An American Son,” confessed a “lack of bookkeeping skills” and an “imperfect accounting system.”
Who among us hasn’t spent $80,000 we couldn’t afford on a speedboat? But all kidding aside, if you want to find reasons to question the judgment Marco Rubio might exercise as president, this is the wrong place to look. The problem isn’t that Marco Rubio would buy America a speedboat. It’s that he’d follow the same basic course as other Republicans have. And we know how that turns out.
It’s certainly interesting to learn about candidates’ personal lives. But too often we act as though the essential truth of how they’d act as president can only be found in what their high school classmates thought of them, what kind of music they listen to, or whether they keep a clean house. The mistake we make is in believing that a person’s behavior in one personal realm automatically sheds light on how he or she would behave in the realm of policy. For instance, when we all learned in the 1992 campaign that Bill Clinton hadn’t been faithful to his wife, some people said, “If he’ll cheat on her, how do we know he won’t cheat on the country?” But in the end, Clinton’s cheating on his wife accurately predicted only that as president he’d — guess what — cheat on his wife.
George W. Bush, on the other hand, seemed to have a placid marriage. But during the 2000 campaign he regularly misled, distorted, and outright lied about policy issues — both what he had done in Texas and what his plans for the future contained. While those statements didn’t get one-tenth the coverage that Al Gore’s fibs did (many of which were themselves distorted by the press), it turned out that as president, Bush was willing to deceive the public on matters of policy.
So what do Rubio’s financial issues tell us about what kind of president he’d be? Probably nothing. If I had to guess, I’d say that as he made some of these decisions, Rubio said to himself that his situation was only temporary — after all, within a few years he’d either be president of the United States or on his way to a career that at worst ended with the spectacular remuneration available to ex-senators who become lobbyists. Perhaps that’s the politician’s version of a common American optimism, the belief that one way or another we’ll all be rich one day.
But if we want to know what Rubio will do on matters fiscal, the place to look is at the policies he’s supported in the past and what he’s proposing for the future. He’s already issued a tax plan, one that is presented as having giveaways for everyone. It would give something to most taxpayers, though some middle-class and lower-income people could see their taxes rise under it. But it showers spectacular gifts on the wealthy, completely eliminating taxes on capital gains and inheritances. Paris Hilton would never have to pay another dime to Uncle Sam.
The plan would also cost trillions of dollars. How is it going to be paid for? While the plan doesn’t say specifically (the word “deficit” appears nowhere in its text), Rubio argues that the plan will create an explosion of economic growth, which of course will bring in more revenue. The trouble is, we’ve heard this argument again and again from Republicans, and it’s always wrong. When Bill Clinton raised taxes on the wealthy, they said there would be a “job-killing recession” and deficits would rise. Instead, we ended up with a budget surplus. When George W. Bush cut taxes on the wealthy, they said the cuts would pay for themselves by increasing growth. Instead, we went back to the days of huge deficits. Then when Barack Obama raised taxes at the top end, once again they said the results would be disastrous. Instead, the deficit has been slashed by two-thirds from its height in 2009.
If Rubio actually believes that cutting taxes on the wealthy is the best way to produce economic growth, then we should be very worried about what he’d do as president. That wouldn’t change if he had taken the $80,000 he spent on that speedboat and put it into a steadily-growing index fund.
Yes, it’s a little bit amusing to see conservatives — who not only value prudence, conscientiousness, and responsibility, but also see wealth as a sign of inherent virtue — both criticizing Hillary and Bill Clinton for making too much money while defending Rubio for his youthful financial exuberance (for its part, the Rubio campaign issued a statement responding to the “Elitist New York Times,” though it didn’t point to anything in the article that was inaccurate). And there isn’t anything wrong with taking a bit of gossipy interest in Rubio’s money issues. Presidential campaigns are fun in part because of the characters, and we all want to know a bit more about who they are.
But it’s a mistake to think that there’s some mystery about how Rubio would handle America’s money that can only be solved by poring over his tax returns and seeing what’s in his driveway. The truth is all too obvious.