Enjoy your honeymoon while it lasts, Marco Rubio: Why the GOP's star debater still isn't ready for primetime

The Florida man knows how to turn in a good debate performance. But on policy specifics, he's a disaster

Published October 29, 2015 9:15PM (EDT)

  (AP/Mark J. Terrill)
(AP/Mark J. Terrill)

Heading into the third Republican debate last night, the conventional wisdom among the press and political professionals seemed to have coalesced around the idea that Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are the strongest four contenders in the race at the moment. Though that may be only because General Jack D. Ripper has yet to declare his candidacy.

Trump and Carson have shown themselves to be nuttier than a Planters factory and Cruz is still hated by pretty much everyone in the GOP outside of his hardcore supporters. Which left Marco Rubio in need of a good performance to settle some nervous stomachs, despite the fact he comes off as someone who went out to ask his neighbors to vote for him to head the neighborhood watch and accidentally wandered into a presidential campaign instead.

Rubio is a very smooth liar as long as he’s reciting his memorized lines, so he came off well when Jeb! Bush went after him over his Senate absenteeism, an attack he had clearly prepared for. But there was another moment, first flagged by Jonathan Chait, which has conservatives up in arms. It came when John Harwood, the CNBC debate moderator, questioned Rubio about his tax plan and is worth examining to see an example of Rubio’s mendacity, and how he turned it into a triumphant moment that had the right wing’s flying monkeys howling in support.

Let’s look at the transcript.

HARWOOD: The Tax Foundation, which was alluded to earlier, scored your tax plan and concluded that you give nearly twice as much of a gain in after-tax income to the top 1 percent as to people in the middle of the income scale.

Since you're the champion of Americans living paycheck-to- paycheck, don't you have that backward?

RUBIO: No, that's -- you're wrong. In fact, the largest after- tax gains is for the people at the lower end of the tax spectrum under my plan. And there's a bunch of things my tax plan does to help them.


HARWOOD: Senator, the Tax Foundation said after-tax income for the top 1 percent under your plan would go up 27.9 percent.

RUBIO: Well, you're talking about -- yeah.

HARWOOD: And people in the middle of the income spectrum, about 15 percent.

RUBIO: Yeah, but that -- because the math is, if you -- 5 percent of a million is a lot more than 5 percent of a thousand. So yeah, someone who makes more money, numerically, it's gonna be higher. But the greatest gains, percentage-wise, for people, are gonna be at the lower end of our plan.

Right wing partisans were quick to dig up this Harwood tweet from a couple of weeks ago that supports Rubio’s point about the lower end of the income spectrum, which is supposed to be proof that Harwood knowingly misrepresented the plan even though he had just been corrected on this same issue two weeks ago.

Except Harwood’s question was not about the lower end of the tax spectrum. He asked about the 15% tax increase the middle class – which is the vast majority of taxpayers – would see. The plan’s effect on the lower end of the scale is not in dispute.

Here is the video. It seems clear Rubio is not prepared to talk about the enormous tax cut his plan gives the wealthiest one percent while dumping a significant increase on the middle class, so he defaults to telling the poor how much he will help them instead. If he had been wearing a fez and had a wind-up key sticking out of his back, I would not have been surprised.

It’s too bad Harwood didn’t follow up by asking about reports that Rubio’s plan, which also cuts the tax rate for businesses to 25 percent, would also blow an enormous hole in the deficit that conservatives are so concerned about when it’s politically convenient. That could have been fun.

There has long been a certain desire among journalists and politicians to make Marco Rubio happen. He’s young and telegenic and has the sort of humble roots that narrative writers and image consultants slobber over. If he wins the nomination, his opponent in the general will be either Bernie Sanders or (much more likely, sorry, Bernie fans) Hillary Clinton. Either one gives the media the “youth vs. decrepit old” story it loves so much, as it can easily be inflated into a larger question of the country’s direction, i.e. “Can Rubio’s youthful energy shake up the official, stodgy old Washington represented by Hillary Clinton and the Democrats,” etc. etc.

It also requires that voters and the media ignore how retrograde and outmoded many of Rubio’s policies are, but people have fallen for old wine in new bottles before. A slicker debater or moderator might be able to trip him up in the future, assuming the GOP candidates don’t all do what they’re threatening and take their ball and go home.

We’ll see what kind of a bounce Rubio gets from last night. So far, he has pursued a deliberate strategy of staying under the radar, working smaller events to schmooze donors. Even with that, his fundraising haul in the third quarter was smaller than expected, though there are reports Sheldon Adelson might be getting his hooks into the senator. That would solve his money woes pretty quick.

His staff, naturally, has spun the weak fundraising as all part of the grand plan. Run a lean campaign, don’t peak too early, use the Blanche DuBois strategy (“I have always relied on the kindness of strangers) to attract volunteers to do the ground-game work in the states that is traditionally done by hired staff. His deputy campaign manager even bragged recently that the whole operation didn’t need an office when everyone can just go set up in a Starbucks, using the free wifi while hogging all the tables.

I mean, if working in a Starbucks is your standard for being productive on the cheap, every freelance and wannabe writer in America is Stephen King.

With Trump and Carson sucking up all the oxygen the last few months, and with the debate stages staying crowded, it might be too much to have expected more from Rubio before now. He’s a folk hero now for a certain segment of the right, not just for the Harwood exchange but for also playing off conservatives’ victimization complex by calling the media a super PAC for Democrats and his disembowelment of Jeb! Bush. He can ride the anti-biased MSM wave for a while, but sooner or later he’s going to have to account for his plans without resorting to canned answers in front of friendly crowds. We’ll see if he can rise to the occasion.

Marco Rubio Shines In The Third GOP Debate

By Gary Legum

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2016 Debates 2016 Elections Aol_on Jeb Bush John Harwood Marco Rubio Tax Cuts