Commentary: Marco Rubio won't be sunk by a swig of water

The Miami HeraldFebruary 19, 2013 

It’s official: Marco Rubio is a national punch line.

After the Florida senator’s weird decision to interrupt his Tuesday rebuttal of the president’s State of the Union speech by taking a swig from a bottle of water, he was quickly mocked on The Daily Show, Colbert Report, Tonight Show with Jay Leno and the Late Show with David Letterman.

Four days later, Saturday Night Live worked him over.

But none of it means Rubio’s a joke.

His recovery from the gaffe has been serious business, a clear-eyed example of protecting a political brand as Rubio eyes a White House bid in four years.

Rubio quickly joined the chorus of mockers Tuesday night by poking fun at himself on Twitter. He posted a picture of the Poland Spring water bottle he grabbed. He then fund-raised off it.

The coverage and mockery perversely benefitted Rubio in another respect: It drew attention away from a speech that, in the eyes of liberals, deserved to be torn apart for misrepresenting the president’s record as well as Rubio’s.

“Don’t worry, Sen. Rubio, nobody noticed — that you gave a speech,” comedian Stephen Colbert joked Wednesday after devoting more than 40 percent of his almost half-hour show to Rubio’s water break.

By then, Rubio had already spent the day making fun of himself on TV.

Less than eight hours after his speech, Rubio appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America, where George Stephanopolous asked him what happened.

Rubio smiled, reached for a water bottle and took a swig. Stephanopolous laughed.

“You’ve shown an ability to laugh at yourself,” Stephanopolous said.

Said Rubio: “I needed water — what am I going to do? . . . God has a funny way of reminding us we’re human.”

Rubio gave a similar performance on Fox & Friends.

Then on Wednesday night, his political action committee Reclaim America PAC started selling $25 water bottles emblazoned with RUBIO in big red letters on a white background.

“Quench your thirst for conservative leadership? Order a bottle now,” Rubio advertised from his Twitter account.

This isn’t just political showmanship or boldness. It’s a type of alchemy, figuratively turning H2O into campaign gold.

All of that money flows back into a sophisticated brand-building operation boosting Rubio, as The Miami Herald’s partner paper, The Tampa Bay Times, details on the front page of today’s Herald.

Of the $1.7 million Rubio’s committee spent through Dec. 31, the lion’s share has been used to pay political consultants and underwrite travel for the senator throughout the nation, where many Republicans view him as the great Hispanic hope for their party as he helps lead a bipartisan push to reform immigration laws.

Rubio’s roots as the son of working-class immigrants and his ability to describe it all in vivid detail made him the obvious choice to deliver the Tuesday rebuttal to President Barack Obama’s speech.

Where Obama said “middle class” eight times in about an hour, Rubio said it 16 times in less than 15 minutes.

“Mr. President, I still live in the same working-class neighborhood I grew up in,” Rubio said Tuesday.

“My neighbors aren’t millionaires. They’re retirees who depend on Social Security and Medicare,” he continued. “They’re workers who have to get up early tomorrow morning and go to work to pay the bills. They’re immigrants who came here because they were stuck in poverty in countries where the government dominated the economy.”

But Rubio didn’t mention they might not be his neighbors for long.

Gossip columnist Jose Lambiet quickly noted that Rubio’s West Miami home is on the market for $675,000. Rubio might move to Washington because, he said, it’s too tough to be a father to four children while commuting from the capital to Miami.

Still, by moving to D.C., he’d be living in the ultimate place where “the government dominated the economy.”

Rubio also faulted Obama for believing our “problems were caused by a government that was too small. . . . A major cause of our recent downturn was a housing crisis created by reckless government policies.”

Unsaid: the role of banks and borrowers who engaged in heavy borrowing.

That is, the role of institutions like Century Bank, a bailout-receiving institution run by political supporters of Rubio who gave him a controversial loan on his West Miami home when he was already deeply in debt.

Less than 40 days after Rubio bought his spacious West Miami home for $550,000 in December 2005, Century Bank gave him a whopping $135,000 equity loan. He was already carrying debt from two other homes he owned.

At least one real estate expert told The Miami Herald at the time that the loan had the appearance of a special favor for Rubio, who was in line at the time to become speaker of the Florida House, a post he officially assumed in late 2006.

Adding to the intrigue: Rubio failed to disclose the loan on his financial reports. He did so after The Herald raised questions.

Rubio and Century Bank said the loan was reasonable because it was based on an independent appraisal, which effectively increased the value of the home by 34 percent in just over a month.

Not only did the deal raise eyebrows at the time, it does now: Rubio is selling that very home for 8 percent less than the appraisal estimate used to justify the equity loan at the time.

Also, Century Bank was the largest recipient of bank bailout funds in Florida in 2009 and, according to Pro Publica, was tops in its class for favorable “insider” loans.

Rubio had nothing to do with the bank bailout (he was elected to the Senate in 2010) and spoke against it on the campaign trail.

“More government isn’t going to help you get ahead,” Rubio said Tuesday. “It’s going to hold you back.”

But, were it not for government, Rubio probably wouldn’t have gone on to college, where he received federal student loans.

Also, Rubio’s father received extensive end-of-life care in 2010 through Medicare, and his mother receives it now.

Yet Rubio had, at a 2011 speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, suggested that programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security “weakened us as a people” because government started to supplant the role of families, neighbors and church groups.

“Republicans have offered a detailed and credible plan that helps save Medicare without hurting today’s retirees,” Rubio said Tuesday. “Instead of playing politics with Medicare, when is the president going to offer his plan to save it? Tonight would have been a good time for him to do it.”

Obama, however, did mention a scaled-back proposal to trim some Medicare costs in his speech. He also reduced future Medicare spending as part of his affordable healthcare plan, which Rubio criticized as well.

When Rubio had a chance to push for cuts to entitlement programs as a state legislator, he was restrained.

As House speaker in 2008, Rubio’s chamber initially proposed eliminating Medicaid subsidies for eyeglasses, dentures and hearing aids for the elderly. The House then backed away from the plan.

Rubio was also responsible for steering an additional $20 million to Jackson Memorial Hospital, the state’s largest provider of Medicaid and charity care.

In all, Rubio helped stuff the state budget with about $250 million in hometown spending over the years.

Rubio went on in 2010 to campaign against Washington-style pork-barrel spending. He pointed out that hometown spending as a state legislator was more fiscally responsible than congressional earmarking because the state had a balanced budget.

In his speech Tuesday, Rubio echoed the longstanding Republican complaint about deficits under Obama (although he was silent about the structural budget deficits Obama inherited from President George W. Bush).

“So Mr. President, I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich,” Rubio said. “I oppose your plans because I want to protect my neighbors.”

That was at the end of the speech, long after Rubio took his swig from his water bottle and set the mockery in motion.

On liberal-leaning MSNBC, the clip was played over and over again. Liberal commentators noted that, but for Rubio’s softened stance on immigration reform, the speech resembled Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign rhetoric.

So Rubio, essentially, was carrying Romney’s water.

But where Romney committed gaffe after gaffe and did relatively little to reverse his fortunes, Rubio did the opposite. He laughed at himself. In politics, that goes a long way.

It’s a major difference between Rubio and Romney.

And if Democrats want to stereotype Rubio as Romney-clone not ready for prime time, the joke could be on them in 2016.

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