It’s worth briefly contrasting the way The New York Times covered the finances of the GOP’s 2012 presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, with its recent reporting on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s personal finances.
Mitt Romney, the paper of record repeatedly reminded its readers in both news and opinion pieces, was rich, very rich. His wealth was somewhat awkward politically, and it was protected, to some extent, by a “friendly” tax code. On a personal level, Romney’s habits were extremely, even “comically,” frugal, with a few exceptions, and that too was politically complicated, because everyone knew how filthy stinking rich he was. Shouldn’t he just own up to it?
One December 2011 story opened with an anecdote in which Romney took a ride in a colleague’s brand new Porsche with a price tag of around $90,000 in early 1990s money. “Boy, I really wish I could have one of these things,” the colleague recalls him saying. Romney, of course, was rich enough that he could have had a fleet of luxury speedsters. What an oddball, right? The thrust of the coverage, even on the news side, was to suggest that Romney was both appallingly rich, and too weird about money to connect with ordinary Americans. His personal frugality might even suggest that he might consider cutting public spending! Could someone like that really be president?
The 2012 election provided one possible answer to that question, but now there’s a new crop of Republican presidential hopefuls, including Marco Rubio, and the Times is raising its eyebrows at the Florida Senator’s personal finances too.
Yesterday’s story opens by noting that after struggling for years with student loan debt, Rubio found a way out in 2012 in the form of an $800,000 book advance. In speeches, Rubio has said, he developed a plan to use the money to pay off his education debt. Rubio did end up using the money toward his school loans, but, the NYT reports, he also “splurged on an extravagant purchase”—an $80,000 “luxury speedboat,” which, the Times says, “fulfilled a dream” for the Florida politician.
As Politico notes, the description of the vehicle is somewhat misleading: The 24-foot craft is really better described as an offshore fishing boat, and the price tag includes the motors as well as the base boat. I think it’s fair to say that any personal pleasure craft that costs in the vicinity of 80 grand is reasonably described as a luxury item, but it’s not exactly the extravagantly decked-out super-speedster that the Times report seems intended to suggest.
The Times chronicles other moments from Rubio’s financial history: racking up house debt even while earning a salary well into six figures, moving in with his mother-in-law while earning a more modest $90,000, saving rather little while earning almost $2.4 million over a decade-long stretch from 1998 to 2008.
But it’s the lead-off story about the boat that’s most instructive, especially when compared with how the paper covered the GOP’s most recent nominee. Romney stuck out for not buying the $90,000 Porsche he admired; Rubio, on the other hand, is notable for plunking down for the $80,000 boat he’d apparently always wanted. For the Times and Republican candidates, it’s heads-I-win, tails-you-lose.
And to what end? It’s not that I think this information should be off limits; these are true facts about political candidates who deserve intense scrutiny from the media. But what does the public really learn about Rubio from a report like this? There’s a brief, half-hearted attempt to draw a connection Rubio’s personal finances and his views on government spending and budgeting (“The senator has long portrayed himself as a champion of financial austerity, railing against excessive government spending and runaway debt.”), but there’s basically nothing on his actual governing record or behavior in office. (You can find a quick look at Rubio's spending and budgeting record, as well as the records of much of the rest of the 2016 presidential field, in the new issue of Reason.)
So for the most part, what you learn is that Rubio, like many other more or less middle class Americans, has sometimes struggled to manage his money, that he made mistakes and learned through trial and error, that he has at times saved too little and, perhaps, on occasion, splurged a little too much, and that, as he has entered his fourth decade, he’s finally started to get his financial act together.
In other words, you learn that unlike Romney, whose vast fortune and borderline obsessive personal frugality really was unusual, Rubio has managed his personal finances in ways that will be broadly familiar to millions of Americans. And also, I guess, that he likes to fish.
Maybe the Times did him a favor after all.