Rand Paul couldn’t be more out of sync with the eight members of the bipartisan group of senators that presented an immigration reform plan in January. While he has little in common with the four Democrats, he is particularly at odds with three of the four Republicans in the group. Paul is already seen as one of the chief rivals of Marco Rubio in the 2016 presidential race. More than that, in the weeks since the plan was unveiled, the Kentucky senator has become embroiled in a public feud with John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Both ridiculed his filibuster about the possibility that the U.S. government could use drone attacks on American citizens and McCain even called Paul a “wacko bird.” But today Paul will announce his support for the key element of their immigration proposal that has drawn the most fire from conservatives: a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
While Paul is not endorsing the gang of eight’s draft, the plan he unveils this morning will be similar on the most contentious elements of the immigration debate. This shows that although Paul appears to be at war with the bulk of the GOP caucus on foreign policy and views the attempt of the Republican National Committee to streamline the presidential nominating process as a direct threat to his candidacy, he is on board with both groups when it comes to a key issue on which many in the party believes it must change if it is to have a chance to win national elections in the future.
Many on the right took aim at the autopsy of the 2012 election presented by the RNC yesterday. They were not just mad about the proposed changes to the 2016 presidential race that angered Paul’s supporters, but were also offended by its conclusions that the party must embrace immigration reform if it is to have a chance to win the Hispanic vote. But if a lot of conservatives are still digging in their heels on what they consider an “amnesty” plan put forward by McCain, Graham and Rubio, Paul seems to agree with the so-called GOP establishment that demonizing illegals is not a coherent approach to the problem or good politics.
Paul’s endorsement of a path to citizenship makes sense because the draconian view of immigration taken by many conservatives is at odds with his libertarian principles. It also makes sense for a man who hopes to expand the narrow if fervent following that supported his father Ron’s presidential campaigns. Like other Republicans who are serious about winning the White House in 2016, Paul knows getting Hispanic votes is crucial to his party’s future.
While Paul can’t really compete with a son of Cuban immigrants like Rubio for the love of Hispanic voters, his speech—which will be peppered with Spanish phrases, his love for Hispanic culture and mentions of his own immigrant forebears—shows that he is nonetheless interested in presenting himself as a truly national candidate.
With so many conservatives still unwilling to drop their opposition to a path to citizenship for illegals, this can’t be viewed as a new consensus within the Republican Party. But with Paul putting himself on the same side as his antagonists on foreign policy on this issue, it’s becoming increasingly clear that opposition to immigration reform is the past, not the future of the Republican Party. With the right’s new hero embracing the same position on immigration as the men he described last week in his CPAC speech as being “stale and moss-covered,” Paul has moved the ball on immigration a bit farther down the field.