Mark Shields: Marco Rubio vs. The New York Times

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. — who, according to polls of Republican voters nationally, wins higher favorable and lower unfavorable ratings than any of the potential 2016 presidential candidates — has shown some real nerve and more than a little brass.

After The New York Times reported on Rubio’s unorthodox personal finances — including his use, as speaker of the Florida House, of the state GOP’s credit card for personal expenses, cashing in his retirement account, and buying, with effectively no money down, three houses (one of which he was forced to sell after five months of missed mortgage payments) — Rubio did not retreat. Instead, he used a fundraising mailing to attack the Times for implying that he is not “rich enough to be president,” seeking to turn the story against the Democratic front-runner, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “It’s true, I didn’t make over $11 million last year giving speeches to special interests. And we don’t have a family foundation that has raised $2 billion from Wall Street and foreign interests.”

Nice try, senator, but no sale.

Running for the White House is totally different from running for governor or senator. In the words of former presidential pollster Peter D. Hart, “when you run for president, you are flying at a much higher altitude than you have ever before experienced.”

The scrutiny, the pressure and the demands increase exponentially. The American voter is far likelier to cast her ballot based on issues — education, health care, taxes — in a vote for the House or the Senate, where we have less feeling of actually knowing the nominees. But our vote for the White House is almost always the most “personal” we cast. We are bombarded with information and impressions of the individual candidates. We hear from their high-school classmates, their car pool colleagues, people they worked for (or who worked for them), their siblings, their in-laws and their old neighbors.

We have also learned, painfully, that failed American presidents have been failures not of intellect or education or experience but rather of character, values and personality. In fact, Richard M. Nixon, our only chief executive to resign in disgrace, had a first-rate mind. He had graduated from Duke University School of Law, served as a Navy officer, been both a U.S. representative and a U.S. senator from California, and served two terms as vice president before being elected and re-elected president.

In our most recent presidential election, Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, had been attacked in the primaries by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for his work as a venture capitalist leader of a bunch of “rich people figuring out clever legal ways to loot a company” and by then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry for being a “vulture capitalist” whose Bain Capital laid off workers in acquired companies solely to improve the bottom line.

This, reinforced by similar attacks from President Barack Obama’s campaign, helps explain why Romney lost to Obama by an 81-18 percent margin when it came to the quality of “cares about people like me,” which 21 percent of voters told exit pollsters on Election Day is the most important one for presidential candidates. Romney won majorities among voters who identified “vision for the future” (29 percent), “shares my values,” (27 percent) and “strong leader” (18 percent) as their most important presidential quality. But he flunked the empathy test.

So it’s totally legitimate for the press and the voters to look at and examine how a would-be president, especially one who makes fiscal austerity a central issue, has made and has managed his or her own money. Because Heraclitus remains as right today as he was 25 centuries ago, when he wrote, “Character is destiny.”


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