U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy spent much of their final Senate debate focused on the past, from Rubio's pathetic voting record to Murphy's thin resume in the private sector. When they looked toward the future, it became even more obvious that Murphy remains the much better choice in a Senate race that appears to have tightened. Floridians concerned about access to health care, the economy and Cuba policy would be far better represented in the Senate by the Democrat than by the Republican incumbent who would continue to be an obstructionist.
Rubio, considered the bright young face of the Republican Party until he flamed out in the presidential primary, remained stuck in reverse during Wednesday night's debate. On virtually every substantive issue, the incumbent clung to the failed conservative policies of the past and offered no hope he would be part of a Senate that would work with a new president who appears more likely to be Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump.
On health care, Rubio continues to call for repeal of the Affordable Care Act with no viable alternative. His free-market approach backed by refundable tax credits or tax-free money from your employer to buy health insurance would not make coverage more available or affordable. He bragged about cutting off public money that could have been used to help insurers spread the risk of covering more sick people. All that did was help drive some insurers out of the federal marketplace and raise premiums. Yet Rubio remains proud that he sabotages health care reform, then complains it's not working and vows to kill it. He should be ashamed.
Murphy recognizes that improvements have to be made to slow premium increases and make coverage more available. He wants to create a public option plan that would help underserved areas, improve Medicare and allow Medicare to negotiate for the best prices with drug companies. He would work with a Clinton administration to improve health care while Rubio would keep throwing up roadblocks that would hurt Floridians.
On the economy, Rubio resorted to the tired calls for more tax cuts and fewer regulations. Murphy could have provided stronger a answer during the debate, but at least he supports an increase in the federal minimum wage that Rubio opposes.
On Cuba policy, Murphy recognizes the obvious. The economic embargo has been an abject failure, and it is time to continue normalizing relations that would benefit Tampa Bay and Florida. Rubio clings to the embargo and the hard-line past that polls show even most Cuban-Americans in Rubio's Miami-Dade County have moved beyond.
The differences between the Senate candidates are just as stark on other issues that did not come up in the debate. Murphy supports abortion rights; Rubio opposes them even in cases of rape and incest — an extreme position. Murphy supports closing the gun show loophole and other reasonable measures; Rubio opposes them. Murphy supports comprehensive immigration reform that includes tougher border controls and a path to citizenship; Rubio abandoned a similar plan that he helped craft.
Murphy's most effective attack may have been to keep wrapping Rubio's support of Trump around the Republican's neck. Rubio joked about Murphy's persistence, but he cannot run away from his refusal to withdraw his support from a Republican nominee who is unfit to be president. Gov. Rick Scott and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who are expected to run for higher offices in 2018, can expect similar questions about their astounding lack of judgment and independence in supporting Trump when their campaigns crank up.
Election day is 11 days away, and a lot can happen. Rubio tried to strike a reassuring note at the end of the debate, acknowledging the bitter election season and saying, "We're going to be okay.'' He's right — but Floridians would be better off if Murphy replaced Rubio in the Senate as an ally of the likely next president.