On Marco Rubio’s interview with The Economist

AN INTERVIEW Lexington conducted with Senator Marco Rubio last month caused a stir. Mr Rubio and this columnist had a wide-ranging chat in his Senate office around the broad theme of re-gearing conservatism for an age of economic disruption. It was an interesting discussion, in which Mr Rubio showed himself to be a more thoughtful and original politician than his public pronouncements sometimes make him sound. Lexington said as much in this column. The controversy arose from a criticism Mr Rubio made of the tax reform passed last year. It now requires a response from The Economist.

But first, a bit more background. Mr Rubio was critical during the interview of what he considered to be his party’s outmoded and complacent view of business as a panacea for all America’s economic needs. Recalling his party colleagues’ claim that workers would benefit hugely from the steep corporate tax cut the Republicans enacted last year, the senator was especially scathing. To the contrary, Mr Rubio said, “there’s no evidence whatsoever that [the windfall companies enjoyed] was massively poured back into the American worker.”  

Democrats and journalists from across the political spectrum pounced on that, arguing that Mr Rubio had just trashed the single main achievement of over a year of unified Republican government. He responded by noting that he had made a similar argument against cutting the corporate rate so aggressively before the tax bill was passed into law. He instead argued for a lesser cut, alongside a big increase in the child tax credit.  He had also proposed that the cut should be targeted at investment, by allowing firms to deduct the cost of their investments from their tax bills, not at corporate income. Though he lost those fights, Mr Rubio said he still supported the tax cut overall. He also made that clear in the interview, though it was not mentioned in Lexington’s column, which was only passingly about the tax cut or Mr Rubio’s view of it.

The senator believed he been traduced by those who seized upon his controversial comment. He had a point. Most of the media coverage of his dig at the corporate tax cut took no account of his wider view of the reform. But, in a way, this was justified. The Trump administration’s claim that companies would pass a lot of benefit from the tax cut to their workers was, and remains, one of its biggest boasts for the policy. Specifically, it predicted the “average American family” would see a wage hike of $4,000. Mr Rubio’s scathing corrective to that misleading, or bogus, claim was in a sense more important than his own nuanced view of the tax reform.

In a mildly aggrieved tweet (“Not claiming bad faith by @The Economist…”), he implied that Lexington should have quoted his views on the reform more fully. Perhaps he might then have avoided some of the flak he received. But even so he had nothing to complain of. He knew all along that Lexington was not planning to write a piece about the tax reform. Your columnist also requested and received approval from Mr Rubio’s office for the quotes he used, in the order he used them. (The interview was “on-the-record”, yet Lexington took that additional precaution having made a couple of small changes to those quotes in order to make them more concise.)

Yet Mr Rubio now sounds even more aggrieved. In an interview with Fox News Radio, he said: “Unfortunately The Economist—I’m not sure they did it on purpose—they ran not even a full quote, they ran like part of a sentence as part of a broader story. It’s disappointing that a lot of the media outlets to the right of centre spend a lot of time saying they don’t believe the media then are the first to believe the media.” Mr Rubio’s office maintains this was not intended as a criticism of The Economist. The radio station’s listeners might be forgiven for thinking that it was.

Fox advertised its interview with Mr Rubio with this question: “What did he really say to The Economist?” Well, here’s the answer. It is a transcript of the senator’s conversation with Lexington—including his views on the tax reform, the intellectual poverty of conservative orthodoxy, why Mr Rubio claims not to be worried by President Donald Trump’s attack on America’s institutions, and much else. It’s worth a read. 

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