Can Marco Rubio chase the press away from lingering questions that surround his personal finances? Can the Florida Republican cordon off the story as a partisan "gotcha" endeavor even though the Beltway press corps recently spent an extraordinary amount of time and energy raising questions about Hillary Clinton's finances and insisting that story posed dire consequences for her?
That certainly seems to be the Rubio strategy, and there are some early signs it may be working.
At the CNBC Republican primary debate late last month, Rubio snapped at a moderator who brought up his personal "bookkeeping skills" as evidence that he might not be qualified to manage the nation's money: "You just listed a litany of discredited attacks from Democrats and my political opponents, and I'm not gonna waste 60 seconds detailing them all."
Rubio's rebuttal was part of the evening's larger war-on-the media strategy, as Republicans announced they were offended by the "tone" of the debate questions and the Republican Party subsequently "suspended" NBC from hosting further debates.
But asking Rubio about his finances hardly represented a "gotcha" question -- he's been facing a litany of queries for five years now. Florida journalists in particular have been raising the issue for much of Rubio's career.
"Rubio has a string of financial messes, personal and political. And anyone who watched his record in Florida knows it. He was mired in debt, even while living a life of limo rides and travel and telling others to live within their means," Scott Maxwell at the Orlando Sentinel noted last week. "Don't take it from me. Take it from court documents. And investigative reports."
Why do questions of finances matters? First, it's been a common campaign topic of media inquiry for a very long time. Reporters frequently ask the questions -- how did candidates accumulate their wealth, did they do so honestly, and are they beholden to any special interests? And secondly, how politicians handle their personal finances might offer insights into how they would handle America's finances if elected became president. (On that front, Rubio's proposed economic plan simply does not add up.)
Some of the lingering questions -- none of which have been "discredited" -- revolve around Rubio's use of a Republican Party-issued credit card between 2005 and 2008 when he was a rising star in Florida politics. (According to GOP policy, the card should only have been used for official party business.) In 2010, news leaked that Rubio used the credit card to charge all kinds of personal expenses, including stone pavers at his house and a four-day, $10,000 family reunion at Melhana Plantation, an historic resort in Georgia. (Rubio's extended family booked 20 rooms.)
Rubio has insisted the hefty charges were a mistake. "I pulled the wrong card from my wallet to pay for pavers," he wrote in his book, while insisting his travel agent "mistakenly used the card to pay for a family reunion in Georgia." Rubio eventually covered the costs himself. At times, the story Rubio has told about his use of the card has wandered from the verifiable facts or shifted as new information came out.
To date, Rubio's team seems to have convinced some journalists that the story about the candidate's finances centers entirely around the use of his Republican credit card, and if and when questions about the credit card are answered, that means all the finance questions have been resolved.
That's simply not true. "GOP Credit Card Only Part of Marco Rubio's Story," read a Florida headline last week.
Some examples from the archives:
In 2008, he abruptly amended his financial disclosure forms after reporters asked why he had not listed a $135,000 home-equity loan he secured on his current home, purchased in December 2005 for $550,000. [Tampa Bay Tribune]
By the time he left office in 2008, Rubio had $903,000 in home, car and student loans. His net worth was a mere $8,332. [Tampa Bay Tribune]
Rubio and his family have benefited both personally and politically from [billionaire Florida car auto dealer Norman] Braman since the start of the senator's political career. Braman donated money to Rubio's campaigns and would likely be a major backer for the super PAC that's been formed to help support Rubio's presidential ru. Braman also employed Rubio as a lawyer during the latter's 2010 campaign for the Senate -- and now employs his wife, Jeannette Rubio, an arrangement that began shortly after her husband was elected. [MSNBC.com]
A few weeks ago, he disclosed that he had liquidated a $68,000 retirement account, a move that is widely discouraged by financial experts and that probably cost him about $24,000 in taxes and penalties. [New York Times]
Yet there's some indication the press is going along with Rubio's current campaign spin. Most prominently, Politico and the Washington Post in recent days both moved to squelch the story, suggesting Rubio's dubious bookkeeping "isn't really a scandal," and that Rubio's campaign had "set a trap," waiting for critics to raise questions so they could pounce with all the answers.
That kind of nothing-to-see-here-coverage stands in stark contrast to the fevered, and at-times even hysterical, coverage that outlets such as Politico and the Washington Post produced while delving into Hillary Clinton's finances and emphatically suggesting that that story resembled a make-or-break problem for the Democrat.
What was the hovering disaster for Clinton that threatened to doom her chances? She made too much money (i.e. she's no longer "authentic"), and she was talking about her wealth all wrong. Pundits agreed that meant she risked being viewed by voters as "greedy," "defensive," "whiny," and "out of touch."
On and on the story has churned. The Clinton finance coverage became so fevered that CNN even altered a Hillary Clinton quote about money to make it more incriminating and newsworthy than it actually was.
And then there was the media eruption over Clinton's paid speeches. Again, there was absolutely nothing wrong or unethical with the money she earned. The press just didn't like the way it looked; journalists thought the optics were bad. The Washington Post in particular became obsessed with the paid speeches storyline, publishing a steady stream of articles and columns on the topic since last summer.
Bottom line: Clinton's finances represented a huge campaign story. And it was one that journalists insisted was both deeply damaging to the candidate (it wasn't) and revealed all kinds of troubling truths about her (it did not).
Meanwhile, what are the optics of Rubio paying for a family reunion with a Republican Party credit card? Do most Americans have a billionaire patron that both invests in their political future and employs their spouse? Does Rubio's financial situation make him seem "out of touch"? The press doesn't seem to care. Most of the coverage to date has centered on the specifics of his credit cards and finances, and very little of it has suggested the story is playing poorly for him or turning off voters.
Question: If Hillary Clinton had used a Democratic Party-issued credit card to pay for a $10,000 family reunion, do you think the press would treat that revelation as a very big deal?