Commentary Magazine


Can Rubio Survive the Right’s Onslaught?

It’s been a couple of weeks since the so-called Senate “gang of eight” unveiled the bipartisan immigration reform compromise proposal, but there’s little doubt about which of the eight have now inextricably tied their political fate to that of this bill. Though he may be a junior member of the gang, the legislation is now as much about Marco Rubio and his presidential hopes as it is about the issue itself. So it’s no surprise that our friends and colleagues at National Review, who were once to be counted among the Florida senator’s greatest enthusiasts, are now labeling the immigration bill as “Rubio’s Folly” in the cover story of their latest issue.

NR and a host of other conservative critics, including Rubio’s erstwhile friend, former Senator Jim DeMint, who steered the Heritage Foundation into the fight against reform, have established the meme that Rubio was “rolled” by Democrat Chuck Schumer and the other liberals on the gang. Their point is that promises about border security in the bill are either imaginary or not to be relied upon. NR’s formidable writer Stanley Kurtz adds to this indictment by claiming today that the funding for efforts to integrate immigrants into American society is similarly fraudulent. But that piece, like many other critiques of Rubio and the bill, seem to take the position that the only responsible position for conservatives to take is to oppose any further immigration at all under the current circumstances. With liberals threatening to add poison pill amendments about including rights for gay spouses into the bill, it’s little wonder that Rubio has at times sounded worried about the bill’s chances of passage in the GOP-controlled House.

This is the point in the drama where a relatively inexperienced senator who has been promoted to the political big leagues too fast might falter or, even worse, panic and lash out at his critics, leading to a meltdown that could doom his ability to ever go back to conservatives to ask for their votes for president. But so far Rubio has not only kept his cool but also maintained a balanced approach to critics of the bill that speaks well for his ability to survive the onslaught against it, which has increasingly been focused as much on him as the details of the scheme.

In his Wall Street Journal op-ed on the issue published today, Rubio has made it clear he has no intention of letting the bill’s opponents seize the issue of border security. He may well have to insist, as Hugh Hewitt advises him today at, on the building of a fence between the United States and Mexico in order to convince conservatives that the U.S. can regain control of its border.

But as much as Rubio has rightly resolved to use the legislative process to toughen up the bill, he also seems to have caught onto the basic dynamic of the immigration debate:

Of course, there are those who will never support immigration reform no matter what changes we make. Even if we address every concern they raise, they will likely come up with new ones. They have a long list of complaints but typically never offer a solution of their own.

Enhanced border security measures will convince some reluctant conservatives to back the bill. But if, as Hewitt suggests, the issue becomes the moral equivalent of the debate over the Panama Canal in the 1970s, it could sink Rubio’s presidential hopes.

Turning the Canal over to the government of Panama was both logical and good policy, but it rubbed many patriotic conservatives the wrong way in the same way that some today feel any bill that would allow illegals to eventually become citizens is unthinkable. Supporters of the Canal transfer—including NR founder William F. Buckley—had all the arguments on their side, but opponents like Ronald Reagan had emotion on theirs. The memory of that debate—which did not affect the eventual disposition of the Canal but which did help make Reagan’s 1980 nomination a bit more inevitable—ought to scare Rubio.

But those who think Rubio will be road kill as an anti-reform push KO’s the bill in the House may be underestimating him and the intelligence of many GOP House members. If President Obama and the liberals avoid the temptation to insert their poison pill amendments into the legislation in the hope of retaining the issue in order to keep scaring Hispanics about Republicans, there is every chance it can still pass. The alternative to this bill is, as Rubio states, not an enforcement-only measure that would build a fence and punish the illegals but the maintenance of the status quo that is the real “amnesty” proposal available to the country. Such an outcome would hurt Republicans for a generation as well as ensure that none of the goals that rule-of-law conservatives would like to establish on the immigration issue are met.

The maelstrom surrounding the immigration bill is beginning to look more like a new chapter in Profiles in Courage than the purely a cynical attempt on Rubio’s part to assimilate into the Republican Party and get elected president that many conservatives have assumed it to be. The outcome of the struggle and its effect on his reputation is far from certain. But if he stays positive and manages to strengthen the enforcement mechanisms in the legislation—which is the key test that will determine whether it will pass—Rubio may emerge from this battle stronger than he was before it started.

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