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.”

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