Sen. Marco Rubio once spearheaded comprehensive immigration reform. Now he's advocating a piecemeal approach because "if we stick to the position of all or nothing, we're going to end up with nothing."
But "all or nothing" is exactly the strategy the Florida Republican adopted earlier this month, siding with other tea-party-backed lawmakers to shutter the government by refusing to pass a spending bill if it didn't dismantle the health care law.
Rubio's changing tactics reflect strenuous efforts to keep a foot in each of the warring camps of his party as he weighs a presidential bid. Is he an Obamacare-bashing tea-party hero who won't budge from conservative principles, like his possible 2016 rival, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas? Or is he the pragmatic Republican legislator open to compromise with Democrats to chart public policy, a la New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie?
His supporters say it may be possible for the son of Cuban immigrants who frequently invokes the American Dream to find a middle ground.
"His comfort zone has always been more of the Reaganesque optimist, and that is what endeared him to Republicans as a potential nominee," said longtime strategist Alex Castellanos, who launched NewRepublican.org to help get his party on track. "When Rubio looks like an inside-Washington deal-cutter or an emblem of the 'party of no,' either one of those undermines his greatest strength, which is exactly what the party needs right now: optimism and vision."
But Rubio's path is unclear, confounding even some of his longtime allies. This week, as hundreds of business, faith, and law-enforcement leaders kicked off a massive, last-ditch lobbying effort for immigration reform, American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas called Rubio's retreat from a comprehensive approach "unproductive."
"I don't understand it," said Cardenas, a former chairman of the Florida Republican Party and Rubio's onetime mentor. "I wasn't pleased with it."
Rubio's team says the senator is simply trying to keep the bill moving and find common ground with House Republicans, who have refused to vote on the Senate's comprehensive legislation. "Senator Rubio is just being realistic about what's possible in the current political environment," said Alex Conant, Rubio's press secretary. "It's not realistic to believe that the House is going to take up and pass the Senate bill."
So as he crusades against Obamacare and tiptoes on immigration, Rubio appears to be trying to placate both the most conservative wing of his party and a more moderate GOP establishment straining to reach a diversifying electorate. (Indeed, while Rubio pushed to defund Obamacare, once his Republican colleagues and the party's major donors began condemning the shutdown, he let Cruz take center stage.)
On immigration, though, his shifting message puts him at risk of being dismissed as a political opportunist rather than heralded as a bridge-building party leader who tried to tackle one of the nation's thorniest problems.
"There's a need to go beyond political positioning and serve as a visionary for the party. Rubio has political skills you just can't teach," said Republican consultant Kevin Madden, who advised former GOP nominee Mitt Romney. "What could America look like once we've moved past this failed Obama experiment? Rubio can frame that answer out for the party faithful and other voters the party also needs to win."
Rubio didn't respond when House leaders quickly rejected the sweeping Senate bill in June and its fate looked uncertain. Instead, he shifted to other issues that are far more popular with his conservative base: He considered sponsoring a ban on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy but never filed a bill, then spent most of the summer and fall rallying opposition to Obamacare.
"What Senator Rubio doesn't want to do is convey the impression that he's looking for way to redeem himself from an attempt to pass immigration policy that kind of blew apart," Castellanos said. "He doesn't need to bounce off the walls to find the next vehicle to carry him to the presidency."
Rubio's repositioning on immigration is particularly sensitive considering his record on the issue. As the first Cuban-American leader of the Florida House, he distanced himself from bills aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration. But during his 2010 Senate campaign, as he portrayed himself as the true conservative in the Republican primary, he declared that "earned path to citizenship is basically code for amnesty." He won the election and was immediately hailed as one of the party's brightest stars.
Rubio began advocating status for young people brought to this country illegally in the spring. After the 2012 election, as a number of prominent Republicans lamented the Hispanic community's rejection of the party, Rubio broached the idea of a step-by-step overhaul of the immigration system. He didn't embrace a more sweeping approach to immigration reform until January; then, he joined a bipartisan group of senators and became an indefatigable champion of the bill until it passed in June.
The issue is likely to keep the Republican Party tied in knots as it navigates the struggle between the tea-party movement and business-oriented establishment from now through the 2014, perhaps even the 2016, election.
Rubio said he's not giving up on an overhaul. "It's an issue we have a lot of consensus on, on 95 percent of the issues," he said in a Capitol Hill interview. "And my hope is we can start making progress on those and moving us closer to solving the issue in totality."
Republican consultant Rob Jesmer, who attended a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event this week aimed at jumpstarting legislative action, said criticism of Rubio's recent comments was unfair and unproductive. "The way to get immigration reform to pass," he said, "is not to trash the single most important guy in passing it."