Sen. Marco Rubio has been christened the winner of the last debate by many pundits after staring down Jeb Bush's attack on his senatorial attendance record. But what did he actually say about his ideas and policies?
Is there any reason for Republican voters to believe he would be their strongest nominee? Is there any reason for general election voters to believe he represents a more modern and rational Republican Party?
Rubio may have blunted Bush's criticism, but he didn't really answer the initial question from the moderator, which was:
"You've had a big accomplishment in the Senate, an immigration bill providing a path to citizenship [that] the conservatives in your party hate, [which] you don't support anymore. Now, you're skipping more votes than any senator to run for president. Why not slow down, get a few more things done first or at least finish what you start?"
Rubio's immigration botch is his biggest weak spot. It's the one time he tried to exercise leadership as a senator, and he abandoned the fight at the first sign of difficulty.
Rubio's answer was nonsensical:
"That's exactly what the Republican establishment says, too. Why don't you wait in line? Wait for what? This country is running out of time. We can't afford to have another four years like the last eight years."
If he doesn't like waiting, then why is he waiting for immigration reform?
If he felt there was urgency, he would have fought harder instead of trashing his own bill, then blaming President Obama for its demise.
Instead, in September he said he would wait "10 or 12 years" after tougher border security measures are installed before considering the pathway to citizenship for which he previously voted.
In other words, no citizenship on his watch as president.
I am still waiting for Rubio to put on his website the details of his immigration reform vision. Instead, the only immigration section of his "Issues" page is about ending "sanctuary cities."
What about the questions about his personal finances? I have no idea if there's anything there that is relevant to his abilities, but the way he answered the questions was not reassuring.
First, he tried to spin his past problems – which included using a Republican Party credit card for personal expenses – as proof he's just a regular middle-class American.
Then the moderator pressed: "You made over a million dollars on a book deal, and some of these problems came after that," such as the strange liquidation of his retirement fund. He responded "we're raising a family in the 21st century" and pitched a larger child tax credit, which didn't explain anything at all.
At minimum, expect reporters to keep digging to see if there's anything he's hiding.
Later, as he defended his position in support of immigrant visas for high-skill jobs, he went on a tangent about vocational education:
"Why, for the life of me, I do not understand why did we stop doing vocational education in America, people that can work with their hands; people you can train to do this work while they're still in high school so they can graduate ready to go work. But the best way to close this gap is to modernize higher education so Americans have the skills for those jobs."
Two, training high school students for skilled labor jobs only makes sense if those jobs are easily available upon graduation. But Rubio offers nothing to invest in job creation.
Finally, Rubio misled the audience when he was asked about his tax plan.
The moderator said, "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."
Rubio protested, "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."
But that was sleight-of-hand. The moderator didn't ask about "the lower end." He asked about "the middle." The New York Times' Josh Barro explains:
According to an analysis from the conservative Tax Foundation, Mr. Rubio’s plan would raise after-tax incomes for the bottom 10 percent of earners by a whopping 44.2 percent, mostly by expanding tax credits so their tax bills would be negative. (Remember, these people have very low incomes, so the absolute amounts being discussed here are often very small.) It would raise after-tax incomes for the highest 10 percent of earners by 5.5 percent, and the top 1 percent of earners by 11.2 percent. Families earning from 40 to 90 percent of the average would get smaller tax cuts, increasing their incomes by 1 to 3 percent.
One thing that didn't get mentioned in the debate is that Rubio's tax plan cuts the top bracket's income tax rate the least of the Republican candidates (though he zeroes out the estate tax and the capital gains tax). Rubio would return to George W. Bush's top tax rate of 35 percent, whereas Jeb Bush would set it at 28 percent and Trump 25 percent. Rand Paul and Ben Carson would install a flat tax of around 15 percent.
On taxes, Rubio is not only vulnerable from the left in a general election. He's vulnerable from the right in the primary.