What Kind of Conservative Will Marco Rubio Be Today?

He shifts from pragmatist on immigration to ideologue on Obamacare, a tactical change that says more about his ambition than policy position.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) talks to reporters on Capitol Hill March 22, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Beth Reinhard
Oct. 30, 2013, 1:30 p.m.

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.”

What We're Following See More »
STAFF PICKS
What the Current Crop of Candidates Could Learn from JFK
21 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Much has been made of David Brooks’s recent New York Times column, in which confesses to missing already the civility and humanity of Barack Obama, compared to who might take his place. In NewYorker.com, Jeffrey Frank reminds us how critical such attributes are to foreign policy. “It’s hard to imagine Kennedy so casually referring to the leader of Russia as a gangster or a thug. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine any president comparing the Russian leader to Hitler [as] Hillary Clinton did at a private fund-raiser. … Kennedy, who always worried that miscalculation could lead to war, paid close attention to the language of diplomacy.”

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Maher Weighs in on Bernie, Trump and Palin
22 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

“We haven’t seen a true leftist since FDR, so many millions are coming out of the woodwork to vote for Bernie Sanders; he is the Occupy movement now come to life in the political arena.” So says Bill Maher in his Hollywood Reporter cover story (more a stream-of-consciousness riff than an essay, actually). Conservative states may never vote for a socialist in the general election, but “this stuff has never been on the table, and these voters have never been activated.” Maher saves most of his bile for Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, writing that by nominating Palin as vice president “John McCain is the one who opened the Book of the Dead and let the monsters out.” And Trump is picking up where Palin left off.

Source:
×