Birtherism Redux: The Right and the Left Overreach On Marco Rubio’s Origins

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(Tom Williams / Roll Call / Getty Images)

Sen. Marco Rubio talks with a reporter before entering the Senate republican luncheon.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio got it from both sides this past week. First it was the birthers, who it turns out are equal opportunity delusionals. The nativist activists, who’ve misspent every waking hour since November 2008 claiming Barack Obama is not really a U.S. citizen, and therefore not really our President, have no qualms about insisting that a fellow conservative like Rubio is not really a U.S. citizen, and therefore not really eligible to be our Vice President should the eventual Republican presidential nominee tap him next year.

The Florida Senator, a Cuban-American, was born here in Miami in 1971 on U.S. soil. But because Rubio’s parents weren’t U.S. citizens at the time, the birthers believe a strict interpretation of our Constitution renders him less than a citizen. Which is, of course, an absurd interpretation, as ridiculous as their relentless pursuit of Obama’s Kenyan birth certificate. Nevertheless, as in Obama’s case, the birthers snared the media’s attention, and that helped lead to a Washington Post article questioning Rubio’s claim that he is the son of Cuban exiles. But the ensuing uproar over that controversy made Democrats and liberals look a bit like, well, birthers.

The Post story published Thursday night challenges Rubio’s personal narrative that his parents left Cuba and Fidel Castro’s communist tyranny – records dug up by the birthers also show that Rubio’s parents originally came to the U.S. a few years before Castro’s 1959 revolution – and it claims as a result that the young, eloquent Rubio used his family history dishonestly during his meteoric rise from Florida House Speaker to his Tea Party-backed election last November as U.S. Senator.

The newspaper was right to show that Rubio should have been more careful about the details, and his official website on Friday corrected the timing of his parents’ arrival in Miami. But with all due respect to the Post, some of its story’s contentions themselves seem exaggerated. Marc Caputo, one of Florida’s best political reporters and hardly a Rubio apologist, points out on the Miami Herald’s Naked Politics blog that the Post emphasizes a 2006 speech in which Rubio, addressing Cuban exiles, says, “Today your children and grandchildren are the secretary of commerce of the United States and multiple members of Congress” and “even Speaker of the Florida House,” referring to himself. Caputo notes that Rubio never claims his parents fled Castro. “Instead,” he writes, “he was talking about ‘a community of exiles’…all the Cubans who live in Miami”:

Regardless of when his parents left Cuba, they were exiles because they stayed in the U.S., specifically Miami, in a community where they soon felt they couldn’t go back to their homeland.

And as Rubio has argued in his rebuttals to the Post, his parents moved back and forth between Florida and Cuba in the late 1950s, and they may well have intended to reside there again permanently, but were prevented by the revolution. Caputo is right to point out that in Miami’s Cuban-American community, “exile” is a fairly broad term that denotes not just fleeing Castro, but also being unable to return because of Castro, regardless of when one’s family may have crossed the Florida Straits – all of which makes the Post’s accusation of biographical falsification less compelling.

What’s more worrisome, however, is the rather hypocritical way Democrats and liberals are now pouncing on the Post piece as some sort of Nixonian smoking gun. If there is one thing that Americans left of center should have learned from the ugly birthers-vs.-Obama episode, it’s that the country has got to extract our politics from character assaults that are as civically trivial as they are socially corrosive. Democratic leaders like Matt Canter, spokesman for the party’s Senatorial Campaign Committee, apparently didn’t get that memo. In an overheated release Friday titled “Rubio’s Chronic Credibility Problem,” Canter declared, “We know [Rubio is] is a Tea Partier who wants to dismantle Medicare and cut Social Security, but the latest [Washington Post] bombshell confirms that Rubio seriously struggles to tell the truth and can’t be trusted.”

Canter went on to say that the Post report “shows that Rubio embellished the facts of his biography, a key narrative that Rubio used during his Senate campaign last year.” Aside from calling the Post story a “bombshell,” there’s something else wrong with this: Rubio’s exile parentage, while it’s the sort of bio point any politician would hype, was not a “key narrative” that got him elected. What got Marco Rubio elected was a combination of precocious political smarts, Tea Party backing and, sorry Mr. Canter, a weak Democratic candidate whose own party in the end seemed to prefer Florida Governor Charlie Crist, the moderate Republican who went independent when it was obvious he couldn’t beat Rubio in the GOP primary.

Nevertheless, liberal groups this weekend are trying to turn the Post piece into Exile-gate. Advocacy organizations like American Bridge 21st Century are featuring Fox News interviews with Rubio on their websites that they claim catch him in the act of lying to the American electorate about his family history. But they, in turn, are simply getting caught in the act of taking the same personal potshots they denounce the Tea Party for firing at Obama. Just as it’s never enough for the right to question his policies – they have to annihilate his citizenship, his Christianity – now the left looks determined to show that it’s not enough to criticize Rubio’s positions – they need to obliterate an otherwise genuine and impressive story of Cuban immigrants, a bartender and a hotel maid, whose son became a U.S. Senator.

For his part, Rubio, 40, recently insisted that he does not want to be the Republican Party’s vice presidential candidate. But if he wants to continue as the popular face of the GOP’s future, he needs to be, as Caputo of the Herald also points out, less “sloppy” about these kinds of political and personal details in the public arena. Not just about the dates of his parents’ migrations, but more important financial matters like questionable loans, party-issued credit card use and PAC contribution disclosures, which became legitimate issues in last year’s Senate election. Those are concerns that are worthy of civic debate. Exile-gate isn’t.