If comprehensive immigration reform legislation indeed dies in this session of Congress, there in the grave with it could well be Marco Rubio’s presidential ambitions–or at least his prior reputation as a Tea Party stalwart with a usefully Latino ethnicity.
But National Journal‘s Jill Lawrence pushes back against this proposition in a column arguing that Rubio’s potential 2016 rivals (other than Ted Cruz) are similarly compromised on the subject on grounds that they have supported some form of a “path to citizenship.” And in any event, she argues, Republicans will eventually understand that Rubio’s heresy makes him a more attractive general election candidate, and overcome today’s passions.
Like most efforts to rationalize away examples of conservative extremism, Lawrence’s argument isn’t that compelling. Rightly or wrongly, the Senate Gang of Eight bill became to the GOP’s dominant conservative activists the great symbol of “elite” efforts to elevate bipartisanship above principle on an issue that has long been far more emotionally important to the Right than most observers are willing to admit. To his former fans Rubio’s role in the Gang of Eight was unmistakably central, and aligned him not only with Obama and Senate Democrats, but with the rump faction of RINOs led by John McCain and Lindsey Graham who shared the spotlight with him.
Yes, other potential ’16ers at some point or another embraced this or that feature of the bill. But in the end, Rand Paul voted against it; “>Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry denounced it; and Chris Christie and Scott Walker and Paul Ryan won’t ever have to vote for it. Even Jeb Bush, who did seem to be encouraging House Republicans to give Rubio’s bill a chance, can point to his entire book on immigration policy that points in a very different direction.
So while Rubio doesn’t exactly stand alone on this issue, he is uniquely identified with the “wrong” position from the perspective of “the base.” Sure, he could overcome that handicap, just as Mitt Romney overcame Romneycare, which looked a lot like a campaign killer going into 2012. But I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on that analogy, insofar as Romney’s survival depended heavily on his own ability to outflank the entire GOP field on immigration. To the extent that Lawrence seems to be echoing the early idea that a President Rubio might be the GOP’s special bonus from supporting or at least not killing immigration reform, it’s now an argument that a President Rubio could be the silver lining of CIR’s defeat. But I’d bet inside Team Rubio, everyone’s looking at envy at the other potential presidential candidates who managed to find a reason not to follow in Marco’s perilous path.