Wolfeboro, N.H. — Call it the tragedy of Marco Rubio.
The senator from Florida seeking the Republican nomination for president has an inspiring personal story, and has, at age 44, generational appeal. Even Jeb Bush says Mr. Rubio is "probably the most articulate conservative elected official on the scene today."
At his best, Mr. Rubio speaks movingly about his own personal story. His fresh young face and last name offers a contrast that he stresses against Jeb Bush (62), Joseph Biden (72), Hillary Clinton (67), and Bernie Sanders (74). "We keep sending the same people, we keep getting the same result," Mr. Rubio says on the campaign trail. "This election is a generational choice," he says. "My country and my party must turn the page on yesterday."
At his best, Mr. Rubio can make your heart leap at the hope that there exists a politician who can talk about free enterprise and inequality in a way that would remedy some of the bitterness and anger and envy contaminating the public debate. He tells of how when he lived in Las Vegas as a child, his parents would sometimes put him in the car and drive him around nice neighborhoods. His mom, a hotel maid, and his dad, a hotel banquet bartender, could have pointed at the nice houses and said, it's their fault, if these people didn't have so much, we could have more. Instead his parents taught him that we live in a country that if you work hard, you could live in one of those houses.
On national security, which may be Mr. Rubio's primary personal policy interest, the candidate offers muscular language, calling for "a foreign policy of moral clarity." "Weakness invites war," Mr. Rubio says.
At a town hall-style campaign event earlier in the day in Dover, N.H., Mr. Rubio responds to a question about drug price increases by blaming not the drugmakers, but the government, namely, the Food and Drug Administration. "One of the things we need to do is FDA reform," he says. "It shouldn't take 58 months and millions of dollars in legal fees" to get a generic version of a drug approved, he says.
And yet a day spent with Mr. Rubio at three campaign events in the Granite State leaves one with the distinct impression that for all his formidable campaign strengths, Mr. Rubio will have to grow as a politician and up his game considerably if he wants to win the nomination or the presidency, let alone if he is to be an effective president. He may even have a difficult time beating out Jeb Bush, John Kasich, or Ted Cruz as the non-Trump, non-Carson candidate around whom Republicans can coalesce.
What's the problem, exactly? One obstacle is that he's shaky when it comes to facts. The kindest way to describe it is that he exaggerates. That is a tendency that will get him in trouble in the scrutiny of a national campaign.
Talking about health reform, Mr. Rubio contrasts his own family of six, where someone is at the doctor once a month, with his brother-in-law, a healthy 28- or 29-year-old single who "thinks he's never gonna die." The "system we have now says we both need to have the exact same insurance," Mr. Rubio says. That's just flat-out false. The law does sets a minimum standard for creditable coverage, but it also does allow consumers the ability to choose between plans with higher and lower deductibles and premiums, and between insurers and plans with smaller or larger networks. A "bronze" plan is not "the exact same" as a "gold" plan.
Talking about immigration law, Mr. Rubio faulted the current system for giving a family reunification preference to relatives of those already here. On the other hand, someone who is "the best physicist on the planet...may or may not get to come," Mr. Obama said. That is also nonsense. Existing law provides for the O-1 and EB-1 categories, also known as "genius" visas. A Nobel laureate physicist or novelist or chemist — or an employer who wanted to bring them over — might have to pay an immigration lawyer to prepare an application, but the super-talented, high-achieving immigrant would get in, in a matter of months. Meanwhile, plenty of applicants for family reunification visas face wait times of up to 20 years.
Talking about taxes, Mr. Rubio promised, "we're gonna have a tax code that no longer has the highest business tax rate on the planet." In fact the United Arab Emirates and Chad — both on planet Earth — have higher corporate tax rates, according to the Tax Foundation.
Even if one gives Mr. Rubio a pass on the exaggeration or sloppiness on details, there are entire policy areas where his campaign's approach seems bizarre or ill-thought out.
One area of emphasis is higher-education reform. "We know welders make more than philosophers, but we graduate a bunch of philosophers," Mr. Rubio complains. He proposes to require colleges to disclose to students the earnings of their graduates in each subject major. "If you want to major in philosophy, we're not gonna ban it," Mr. Rubio says. "But you're gonna know that the market for Greek philosophers has tightened over the past 2000 years."
This strikes me as misguided on several fronts. It conceives of the purpose of education in a narrow pre-professional way. It solves a problem (a supposed glut of out-of-work philosophers) that doesn't actually exist, and that if it did exist would probably work itself out on its own, or with local regulation, rather than needing additional federal laws. It speaks of a central planning mindset that fits more with President Obama — who in 2014 denounced art history degrees before apologizing — than with a free-market approach. Finally, it demeans philosophy, which, as readers of Maimonides, Leo Strauss, Aristotle, Robert Nozick, or John Locke can attest, is actually a field that has a contribution to make in informing the living of a good life. If our founders hadn't read Locke and had instead been ushered by their colonial governors straight to welding school, America might have ended up for a long time like Canada, a mediocre British colony.
Mr. Rubio's tax plan is similarly muddled. At the Dover event, the candidate took a question from David Burns, 78, a retired lawyer who lives in Portsmouth, N.H. Mr. Burns noted that at 35%, the top individual income tax rate in Mr. Rubio's tax plan is higher than what some of the other Republican candidates are proposing. Never mind that, if precedent holds, the candidate's campaign-proposal tax rate would probably be treated as an opening bid subject to being negotiated upward by Congress and the press. "This is not pure numbers," Mr. Rubio replied, explaining that businesses, including pass-throughs, would be subject to a 25% rate, and that his plan included a charitable deduction, a child care deduction, and a "generous personal tax credit." He said the "vast majority of Americans would be paying at the 15% rate." Investment is not taxed, he said, because government wants to encourage it (the same argument could be applied to work, but Mr. Rubio didn't go there.)
I asked Mr. Burns afterward what he made of Mr. Rubio's answer. "I'm still not completely sold on what he said," Mr. Burns said. A "child care deduction" wouldn't help many 78-year-old retirees. "35% I think is high," Mr. Burns said.
If there's a hope for Mr. Rubio, it's that his campaign shows signs of being able to adjust on the run. A bank-branch-line-style retractable fabric fence raised some eyebrows among voters and reporters at the noon event in Dover; New Hampshire residents are used to meeting presidential candidates without physical barriers standing in the way. At the evening event in Wolfeboro, the fence was gone.
Other fixes may be more complicated. It's hard to imagine the senator substantially revising his tax plan at this stage of the campaign. But it's also difficult to see the senator in the White House, or at the top of the ticket, absent some adjustments that go beyond leaving the rope line at home.