Marco Rubio may have made Sunday morning television history yesterday when he managed to appear on seven shows to speak in support of the bipartisan compromise immigration bill on which he and seven other Senate colleagues have been working. Rubio was both eloquent and convincing in his advocacy for immigration reform. Indeed, the only moments in which he appeared to falter in any of his appearances came not when he was asked to defend the proposed bill but to discuss his own political future.
Wherever he went, Rubio was asked about the impact of his embrace of immigration reform on his presidential hopes. Given that his position on this issue is one that may offend many members of own party while also making him potentially more attractive to independents and some Democrats, this is a fair question, albeit one he probably is better off not answering. But rather than merely punt on the question of whether he is thinking of running for president with a bland and probably honest reply indicating that he hasn’t made up his mind, Rubio went further than that, saying he hadn’t even thought about the implications of his stands on his possible candidacy and that he hadn’t even thought about whether he would run in 2016.
Such patently disingenuous answers are commonplace in politics, a business where blatant dishonesty can often be the coin of the realm. Tradition holds that presidential candidates are not supposed to sound too eager about running since we generally like our would-be commanders-in-chief to sound diffident rather than eager about their desire for power. And three years from now, no one will care what Rubio or any other candidate said about running in 2013. But it must also be acknowledged that his willingness to fib about what he is thinking about contrasts unfavorably with potential rival Rand Paul’s open candor about his ambitions.
The comparison with Paul is interesting since the Kentucky senator has been branching out in recent months looking to gain support in sectors where he has had little previous success, such as Jews (via his trip to Israel) and African-Americas (as his speech at Howard University proved). But while neither of those gambits has proved completely successful, Paul’s honesty about his purpose was disarming, if not persuasive.
Rubio’s approach to the question of expanding his 2016 prospects is a bit different since by embracing immigration reform he is softening his image with centrist voters while also hoping to gain support from fellow Hispanics, who have largely fled the GOP. Rubio’s seven-prong assault on the American public yesterday worked because his command of the issues surrounding immigration is so thorough. His argument that the current system gives the approximately 11 million illegal aliens in the United States functional amnesty because of non-enforcement shoots the concerns voiced by opponents out of the water. By taking up a reform bill that will provide a pathway to citizenship for the illegals while also securing the border, he is giving his party its own pathway out of a dead end on a difficult issue while also showing leadership.
Those who argue that his views on immigration will sink him with conservatives are underestimating the Florida senator. If anyone can navigate the shoals of right-wing opposition to citizenship for illegals, it is a hard-core conservative/Tea Partier like Rubio. It should be remembered that Mitt Romney went overboard as an immigration hawk precisely because it was the one issue on which he didn’t have a record of flip-flopping that lingered from his days as a moderate GOP governor of Massachusetts. Rubio demonstrated yesterday that there is a conservative case to be made on behalf of recognizing the realities of the situation rather than pretending that millions of people can be thrown out of the country or that they will “self-deport” themselves.
But Rubio must guard against moments like those on Sunday when he came across as patently disingenuous about his future. Like his decision to rush to the Senate floor during Rand Paul’s February filibuster on drone attacks—an issue on which he actually disagreed with the libertarian but feared to be left out of the story and therefore jumped in to register his moral support—there was something about his denials that showed him a little too eager to pander to public opinion or at least to his perceptions about what is expected of him at this stage of the long slog to 2016.
We may put this down to inexperience. After all, Rubio has only been on the national stage for barely three years. But Rubio is now under a spotlight that will afford him no breathing space or water breaks in the next three years. For all of his forthright approach on the issues, Rubio needs to stop playing so coy about his future. He needn’t declare, but he must stop pretending that he doesn’t think about such things. Doing so only undermines his credibility as a leader.
As a fresh political face that succeeded on the basis of his willingness to take on his party’s establishment (as his 2010 challenge of Charlie Crist proved), he needs to understand that coming across as an insincere politician has the potential to hurt him more than any supposed apostasy on immigration or any other issue.