Commentary Magazine


Rand Paul, Immigration Bellwether

Since passing a Senate immigration bill with broad Republican support would vastly increase the chances of the bill passing the House, opponents of the proposed comprehensive immigration reform have been looking for an ally in the Senate GOP caucus to stall the bill. They have settled, it seems, on Ted Cruz. The freshman Texas senator is popular with the base and has consistently sought out ways to make his presence known in the upper chamber. He is also Hispanic, which–fairly or unfairly–makes it easier for him to oppose immigration reform.

But Cruz is not the most important voice in the Senate GOP on immigration–that distinction goes to Marco Rubio, who is crafting and selling the bill. Nor is Cruz the most important Republican outside the “gang of eight” who led efforts to put the bill together. Cruz is an important voice, for the reasons mentioned above. So is Paul Ryan–who plays a key role in House legislation and often serves as a bridge between the base and the House leadership–since the bill would have to pass the House after gaining the Senate’s approval. But those who want to get a sense of the fate awaiting the immigration bill should be watching Rand Paul.

The Kentucky senator has given every signal that he is planning a run for president in 2016. That fact alone colors every piece of legislation he supports or opposes, every floor statement he makes, every speech he delivers. While his base of support is the libertarian right, on several major issues on which the libertarian right and the GOP presidential primary base diverge–from abortion to marijuana legalization to immigration–Paul has sided with the base. And if he runs for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, his position on immigration reform will be key to the party’s platform whether Paul wins the nomination or not.

Although the Republican Party’s attitudes toward immigration reform have shifted since the 2012 election returns showed the party facing an uphill demographic climb with Hispanics and other immigrant groups, it’s unclear if the party has shifted enough to nominate a pro-immigration candidate. (And the stories detailing how Democrats are over the moon for this current immigration proposal surely don’t help.) Rick Perry’s least-popular policy position in the 2012 primary debates was his support for giving in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants. Mitt Romney, desperate to shed his RINO label, saw an opening to Perry’s right on immigration and took it. Thus, despite the fact that Perry didn’t come close to getting the nomination, he shaped the eventual nominee’s perspective on immigration, which helped doom him in the general election.

Paul holds similar influence for 2016. If he chooses to support comprehensive immigration reform, it will essentially take the issue off the table if Paul and Rubio meet in the presidential primaries. If Paul decides instead to oppose it, he could use the issue to gain support from the base for his own nomination. Even if he doesn’t win the nomination, then, the fissure on immigration will open up space to Rubio’s right on the issue, which may nudge the eventual nominee to that space.

Paul seems to simultaneously want something to pass to take the issue off the table (a position shared by many on the right) without rushing through a bill that would be only marginally better than the status quo and create new problems in place of old problems. Which is why Paul’s most likely avenue is to offer amendments that would pull the bill to the right. But yesterday, as I noted, he threw some cold water on the reform process by making some very un-libertarian comments about immigration–specifically, that the accused Boston Marathon bombers’ Chechen backgrounds should have made it more difficult to allow them to immigrate to the U.S. There is some logic in Paul’s concern that war-torn regions or generally violent places warrant close attention, but he should also understand why such areas are more likely to create refugees and freedom-seeking immigrants in the first place.

Paul’s position on the immigration bill is also important because he is seen as the vehicle through which libertarian-leaning voters can flex their influence within the Republican Party. As I’ve written in the past, Paul’s success as a Republican serves as a refutation of the method employed by former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, who chose to see his national unpopularity as a rejection of libertarian policies (it wasn’t) instead of as a judgment on his failure to broaden his appeal as a candidate for higher office (it was).

As the Wall Street Journal notes in a lengthy profile of Paul’s young political career, Paul is attempting to turn, as the headline phrases it, “a moment into a movement.” It’s an allusion to Paul’s father, Ron Paul, who really did lead a libertarian movement within the GOP–but one that put a political ceiling over his head and attracted a following whose loudest members were also often conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites (I saw them combine the two when they shouted “show us the shekels!” at former Vice President Dick Cheney a couple of years ago at CPAC).

The younger Paul is not the lunatic-magnet his father was in Congress, but he has also espoused less purely libertarian policy views. His presence among the GOP’s mainstream voices, however, means his eventual position on the immigration bill won’t be taken in isolation.

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