Marco Rubio has a big op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today explaining to conservatives why they should support immigration reform, and WaPo’s Greg Sargent has a persuasive take on it:

So how can Republicans who want immigration reform get conservatives to accept it, given that Obama also wants it?

Republicans pushing for reform have come up with a strategic answer to that question, one that isn’t really acknowledged openly. They are subtly making the case to their base that a defeat for immigration reform is actually a hidden victory for Obama, and that passing the Senate compromise is actually worse for the President than the alternative, i.e. doing nothing.

In this sense, the immigration reform debate is perhaps the ultimate test of what Obama referred to as the need to create a “permission structure” — that is, a way for conservatives to accept something Obama wants, too. The message — which is carefully couched – is that, yes, Obama wants immigration reform, but conservatives should accept the Gang of Eight compromise because the alternative is actually better for the President.

The basic idea here is that the status quo with its alleged weak border enforcement is as bad as or worse than legalizing the undocumented workers already here. There’s even a hint in Rubio’s op-ed that absent reform legislation, the radicals in the administration will find other, more devious ways, to legalize undocumented folk, even as they are inviting more to come in.

Perhaps understanding that this argument isn’t exactly open-and-shut, Rubio also invites conservatives to “toughen” the border enforcement language in the Gang of Eight bill–as he’s been doing in interviews for several days. I guess ideally he’d like Obama to play his part by yelling and screaming about any modifications before eventually caving in, because he’s so weak, you know.

Greg notices something else interesting about Rubio’s pitch: it doesn’t contain the usual political arguments that are actually the motive for virtually all the Republican interest in immigration reform:

There’s a key nuance here. As I understand the thinking, GOP base voters are turned off by the political argument that we must reform immigration because if we don’t, Obama will be able to screw Republicans over politically with Latinos. The reason the political argument doesn’t work is partly because many GOP base voters are persuaded that immigration reform will create a whole lot of Democratic voters — in purely political terms, rank-and-file members of the GOP base believe immigration reform is a net win for Democrats no matter how you slice it.

I’d add to that observation the equally important fact that a lot of Tea types are turned off by electoral arguments generally: they don’t want to hear about how the Republican Party might wrangle a few more Latino voters via a betrayal of principle–they want to pursue their ideological tenets to the ends of the earth. There’s just not a lot of openness to strategic or tactical thinking here; it’s fight-fight-fight, based to some degree on the iron conviction that all the strategery of the Republican Establishment of the past hasn’t worked while howling at the moon worked just fine in 2010.

In any event, it’s a tangled web ol’ Marco seems to be weaving, and if Greg and I can see through it, I’m reasonably sure a lot of his intended audience can see through it, too.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.