The Vetting of Rubio Gets Serious

With his strong performance at Wednesday night’s CNBC debate, compounded by a Jeb Bush performance that seems to look worse the more it recedes in the rear-view mirror, Marco Rubio can now for the first time plausibly claim to be the Establishment favorite for the Republican presidential nomination, and its best hope of heading off a disastrous Trump, Carson or Cruz nomination.

But he’s going to have to survive a real vetting, and the question is whether it will come from the media or from the campaign of a rival. The raw materials are there for some real problems: the man has a history of shaky personal finances, misuse of other people’s money, and reliance on politically connected sugar daddies. He also has a generic response that fits in nicely with his son-of-a-bartender-and-a-maid aspirational message: unlike many of his rivals, he’s not a trust fund baby or the son and brother of presidents, and hasn’t worked for Lehman Brothers or married someone who works for Goldman Sachs. So yeah, he’s struggled to pay bills.

In conservative mythology there’s a fine line, of course, between “struggling to pay bills” and being an undisciplined freeloader who can’t be trusted to meet his obligations. The two questions about Rubio are (1) whether a determined opponent (in either party) can push his biography over the line into that questionable territory where voters wouldn’t co-sign a loan with the slippery dude, and (2) whether there’s more dirt under the surface, which I’ve characterized in the past (in an allusion to the Cher “confession scene” in the movie Moonstruck) as something perhaps worse than the habit of bouncing a bunch of checks at the liquor store.

With respect to the first question, CNBC’s Becky Quick tried to string together what we know about Rubio’s personal financial problems into a general accusation, and he batted it back over the net very effectively. But he did so, notes Ryan Lizza at the New Yorker, by suggesting Quick (like the rest of the godless media) was in cahoots with his Democratic opponents–not by answering the question. This may not work perpetually.

There’s also fresh evidence that his old buddy Jeb Bush has been planning to use the financial innuendos against Rubio, in the form of a leaked internal campaign document that was apparently the basis for a briefing for nervous Bush donors over the weekend. But it’s pretty much the same set of where-there’s-smoke-there-may-be-fire suggestions Quick made during the debate, and nothing new or toxic.

If, say, Right to Rise’s Mike Murphy has something worse, we’ll probably find out very soon. The good news for Rubio is that if he can get through this “vetting” period without anything debilitating coming out, he can then refuse to answer questions about it because it’s been “resolved” early in the campaign. That probably won’t suffice to avoid a new round of scrutiny in a general election, but could get him through the primaries. You have to figure at some point Donald Trump will point to Rubio’s personal finances and call him a “loser,” but perhaps by then Rubio will welcome the attention as denoting a two-candidate race.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.