With immigration reform at the top of the domestic agenda as Congress prepares to vote in the coming weeks on the bipartisan gang of eight bill, the spotlight is shining very brightly right now on Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Rubio remains the key player on immigration because he is the link between the gang and conservatives. Without him, the scheme has no chance, no matter how it is modified, of ever gaining approval in both houses of Congress. The bill gives Rubio the opportunity to run for president in 2016 after having actually accomplishing something important, showing that he is a doer and not just a talker as well as demonstrating that the GOP can appeal to Hispanics. But all the attention he is getting isn’t necessarily helping him.
As a package of features in Politico today makes clear, Rubio is under attack from both the right and the left. Some on the right are now damning him as a dupe of the left and a Washington insider while some of his allies in the gang of eight are suspecting that Rubio’s attempts to toughen up the enforcement aspects of the legislation will destroy it. Both the right and Rubio’s liberal gang colleagues worry that he is betraying them. Having decided to prove that he was a politician of substance, the senator is finding that it is easier to run your mouth without taking responsibility for trying to fix a problem. While some critics wonder whether he has the intestinal fortitude to stick with a position under fire and guide a complicated piece of legislation to passage, a portion of his own party is already writing him off for 2016 because of the hostility reform has engendered among grass roots conservatives who are openly hostile to immigrants.
All of which proves that the senator’s decision to stake his reputation on immigration reform is a gamble that could make or break him. But while the bill’s future is very much up in the air, the question of how Rubio will come out of this depends more on the way he conducts himself in the coming weeks than it does on whether the reform package becomes law.
With a not-inconsiderable portion of the Republican Party still resolved to try and stop any bill that provides a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, Rubio has become the main scapegoat on the right for what they claim is a betrayal of the rule of law and the GOP. But as much as Rubio has never tried to distance himself from conservatives or his Tea Party roots, it’s also possible that the senator understands that being the most right-wing candidate in 2016 isn’t necessarily the best path to the presidency. By showing his willingness to think outside a narrow partisan box and to try to deal with a seemingly intractable dilemma in America’s failed immigration system, Rubio has enhanced his appeal to the center of both his party and the general electorate. He will pay a price for this, and it is likely this issue will cost him votes in the Iowa caucus from conservatives who think outreach to Hispanics is treason to Republicans. But the notion that this will doom his chances is nuts.
Immigration is just one among a raft of issues that are important to conservatives. Yet getting out in front on this issue is probably the best way Rubio has to prove to mainstream Republicans that he has what it takes to be president. After all, many of them not only support immigration reform in principle but also understand that it is vital to beginning the process of persuading the fastest growing demographic group in the country that they have a home in the GOP. As the last two Republican nomination contests have proved, the race doesn’t necessarily go to the candidate who carves out the most right-wing position in the party.
What would be fatal for Rubio is not being identified as an advocate for the dread “amnesty” for illegals—a misnomer since, as Rubio has pointed out, the real “amnesty” is what is happening now—but rather being labeled as an indecisive politician who was not ready for prime time.
That’s the danger for Rubio as he seeks to cajole the Senate to toughen up the bill while still getting it passed. But damning his efforts to strengthen enforcement as waffling misses the point. Without getting more conservatives into the fold on the issue, the Senate bill will die in the House. Perhaps that is what some liberals want since it will enable them to continue to use the issue to flay the GOP. But if they want a bill passed they need to give Rubio room to reel in conservatives who are skeptical about the measure’s enforcement provisions.
If his efforts to bridge the gap between the gang of eight and conservative Senate colleagues collapse and he winds up voting against his own bill (an unlikely, yet still possible, conclusion to the drama), he will look foolish, which is worse than being called a dupe of Chuck Schumer by radio talk show hosts. But if he weathers the storm and forces his liberal allies on immigration to accept a stricter enforcement regime and gets the bill closer to passage, he will emerge looking like a real leader.
Rubio is still so untested on the national scene that the jury is out on how he will do. But those who doubt his abilities to stand his ground in a fight need to remember that for all of the comparisons to Barack Obama, Rubio was not a no-show in state politics before being elevated to the United States Senate. He was majority leader and then speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. Though he is now playing on a much bigger stage than the state house in Jacksonville, this is not his first legislative rodeo.
The betting here is that whatever the eventual fate of the bill in the House, Rubio’s gamble will pay off in increased respect for his abilities as a legislator and a leader. That may make him too much of an insider to suit some in his party, but in the long run Rubio can’t lose if he’s seen as a politician who is more about policy than just being one with a glib tongue, a handsome face and a Hispanic background.