Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has four problems and two opportunities on immigration, and in an interview with Sean Hannity last night, he did his best to stake out a sensible middle ground that will make nobody entirely happy (except maybe people like me), but makes the best of the situation he’s already in.
As to Rubio’s four problems, the first and most obvious is that a bunch of very loud people in the Republican Party and the conservative commentariat are very, very, very against anything that smacks of “amnesty” for people who have come to the United States illegally. (As I’ve explained before, amnesty is not that rare in non-immigration contexts, and not all “amnesties” are created equal, depending among other things on the conditions attached and whether the end result is citizenship or simply lawful permanent residence). Many of those people – especially on talk radio – are heavily involved in stoking anger against Republican primary candidates who are seen as insufficiently trustworthy on this issue, and nobody comes in for more grief from them than Rubio and Jeb Bush. With the aggressively anti-immigration Donald Trump leading in the polls, there’s a lot of pressure right now for the rest of the field to move in his direction on this issue.
The second problem is the opposite – while the role of immigration in the voting patterns of Hispanic voters tends to be overstated, there is undoubtedly a risk that a GOP nominee who might otherwise appeal to Hispanic voters could ruin that brand by seeming to cater too much to Trump and the other hardest-line voices on this issue. That’s especially a potential lost opportunity for Rubio, who would be the first Hispanic presidential nominee (as would Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)), speaks Spanish, is the son of immigrants, hails from a state with a very large and growing Hispanic (and especially Puerto Rican) population, and according to exit polls, won 55% of the Hispanic vote in 2010.
The third is unique to Rubio. Rubio in 2010 took a hard line on amnesty (in the very campaign where he did so well with Hispanics, albeit in part due to the fact that his main opponent was the sitting Republican governor of the state). He declared that “I never have and never will support any effort to grant blanket legalization amnesty to folks that have stayed in this country illegally.” In a televised debate in late October, he stated:
“First of all, earned path to citizenship is basically code for amnesty. It’s what they call it,” said Rubio. “And the reality of it is this: This has to do with the bottom line that America cannot be the only country in the world that does not enforce its immigration laws. It is unfair to the people that have legally entered this country to create an alternative pathway for individuals who entered illegally and knowingly did so.”
“If you do that, you will never have a legal immigration system that works,” said candidate Rubio. “No one is going to follow the law if there is an easier way to do it.”
By contrast, the “Gang of 8” comprehensive immigration bill that Rubio co-sponsored in 2013 offered a path to citizenship – not an unconditional one (“What I said throughout my campaign was that I was against a blanket amnesty,” he said at the time. “And I was, and this is not blanket amnesty,” he argued, because illegal immigrants would pay “serious consequences” for breaking the law), but it was clearly part of the bill. Rubio now notes that insists that he has learned his lesson about supporting these kinds of thousand-page monstrosities and trying to do everything on immigration at once, but the fact that the Gang of 8 bill represented 1) a sharp break with his 2010 campaign rhetoric, 2) his signature legislative effort in his one term in the Senate, 3) a repeat of the same basic approach that had failed in 2007, and 4) an apparent example of him getting snookered by Chuck Schumer, the bill’s author, into supporting a bill full of mischief in the minutiae, added up to a major trust problem that Rubio has yet to fully live down. While Rubio does have a more substantial record from his time as Speaker of the Florida House and is generally well-positioned ideologically to the gravity center of the party, his relatively thin record in the Senate and the Congressional GOP’s overall ill repute with conservative voters mean that he needs deeds rather than words to rebuild that trust, and is short on opportunities to do so.
The fourth problem is that the dynamics of the primary right now – in which Rubio may be gaining support from Jeb and picking up a lot of the donors and endorsers left behind by Scott Walker’s departure – make it increasingly logical for some of his leading rivals to concentrate fire on Rubio on this one issue now, while things are still crowded, before the party establishment really coalesces behind Rubio as the stop-Trump choice. Like Erick, I tend to think it’s pretty likely that Rubio will be in the final two candidates standing at the end of this process, and that the other may well be Cruz (and if not Cruz, someone else more hawkish on immigration than Rubio). If you fear Rubio as a guy who could potentially gain a lot of support that isn’t behind him yet, now is the time to pounce on him.
By contrast, the two opportunities available to Rubio are real, too. One, in the primary, is that there’s a lot of donors and a significant number of Republican voters who don’t want the party to be seen as an anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic party (and a fair number who actually like amnesty). Many of those donors are behind Rubio already. And as Leon has noted, the actual Republican primary electorate – as opposed to the people who are the loudest on the internet or the people responding to polls right now who may not vote – includes an awful lot of people who are not hardline immigration hawks:
There’s a humongous amount of polling data that suggests that the vast majority of the Republican voting base is in favor of a conditional path to citizenship. FiveThirtyEight compiled data from eight polls conducted so far this year and found that, on average, an astounding 72% of Republicans favor a path to citizenship if certain conditions (paying back taxes, paying a fine, learning English) are met. These are “amnesty” positions, according to the folks who support Trump, and yet they are the clear majority position within the GOP.
Additionally, the explanation that immigration is the one issue that Trump voters care about is flatly inconsistent with the actual polling data that demonstrates his rise to the top. If you look at the RCP averages since Trump entered the race, it is clear that he has pulled the bulk of his support from Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. It beggars the imagination to think that, here were all these Republican voters who cared nothing about anything other than immigration, but before Donald Trump came along, they were going to support the two most moderate candidates in the race on immigration. Further, if you look at Trump’s recent dip in the polls, it is clear that the voters who have left his ship have gone to Rubio and Fiorina, neither of whom is an immigration hard liner by any stretch of the imagination.
If immigration were the end-all-be-all in this year’s election, then before Donald Trump entered the race, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) should have been way out in front, as he was clearly the most doctrinaire immigration candidate in the race – but he wasn’t.
If Rubio can convince the majority of Republican primary voters and donors that he’s closer to them on immigration than whoever is left standing against him, that may put him in a fine position indeed. Which brings us to his other opportunity – that just as Bill Clinton was able to make bank on Sister Souljah and Ricky Ray Rector, Rubio in the general election may be able to present a more electable face to Hispanics and other immigration doves precisely because he defeated Trump and ran the gauntlet of this primary season without bending too far on this issue.
That brings us to what Rubio said to Hannity last night, which is being reported as him closing the door entirely on amnesty, but isn’t what he said:
“I don’t think it’s a decision you have to make on the front end. The first two things you have to do is stop illegal immigration, then second you have to modernize our legal immigration system, and then third you can have a debate about how to even legalize people to begin with,” Rubio said. “And then ultimately in 10 or 12 years you could have a broader debate about how has this worked out and should we allow some of them to apply for green cards and eventually citizenship.”
“I personally have said that I don’t want there to be millions of people that are permanently barred from every becoming Americans,” Rubio said Monday, adding: “Even though I’m personally open to green cards, that’s a debate that we can have down the road after we’ve seen how the [border security] program has worked.”
If you see a significant component of the immigration issue as a trust issue, and a significant component of reform’s failure in Congress as a combination of mistrust and legislative bloat (with its attendant accumulation of opposition), this is an entirely sensible approach. It does not mean you delay Step Two or Step Three until some Utopia of sealed borders arrives, but it means that you build trust with immigration hawks by putting their agenda first in line legislatively and into practice by the Executive Branch – and then, having won some trust and built some political capital, you deal with improving the legal-immigration system (with its debates over guest worker and H1-B visas), and only then do you get to the thorniest issue. Politically, framing it this way also allows you to send the message that you’re not caving either to the faction that wants to send 11 million people home (whether in boxcars or by “self-deportation”) or to the faction that sees everything else as window dressing for a gigantic amnesty. And as a bonus, Rubio is probably perfectly happy to see this mis-reported during the primaries as him shutting the door on amnesty, knowing he can correct the record in the general election without actually changing his position or his rhetoric. Plus, it’s not really a flip-flop in terms of end goals and principles from where he was in 2013 (and it is, in fact, basically what he already said at the CNN debate the other night), but simply a recognition that different tactics and sequencing of events are needed to get from A to Z.
Will it work? In this wild political season, it’s hard to predict much of anything. But if I was holding the cards that Rubio has been dealt and has dealt himself entering September 2015, this is the best way I could think of to play them.