How Marco Rubio won on immigration

July 1, 2013

The Senate has passed a comprehensive immigration bill thanks, in large part, to the efforts of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.  Debate in Republican and conservative circles has already begun about whether Rubio helped or hurt his 2016 presidential prospects with the critical role he played in crafting the legislation and pushing it to passage.

We can argue it both ways. So we will. Today we make the case that Rubio ultimately helped himself in regards the 2016 presidential race during the immigration debate. Tomorrow, we will make the opposite case. Which do you agree with?

Marco Rubio made a giant gamble by going all-in on the immigration debate in the Senate. And he won -- big time.


Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, celebrating.

Let's start with this fact: As the highest profile Hispanic Republican elected official in the country, this wasn't a fight that Rubio was going to be able to sidestep.  If he had tried to take a lower profile role, he would have been called out for ducking the issue.  Knowing he was going to get pushed into the fight, he jumped in -- which is always smart in politics.

Rubio then methodically did everything he personally could to make sure that the certain opposition of some faction of conservatives did not paralyze the effort to pass the bill.  What Rubio understood from the start was that the key to the bill succeeding was not convincing every Republican to vote for it -- since that would be impossible. Rather, he sought to keep the opposition somewhat muted outside of the Senate and filibuster-free inside the chamber.

Rubio faced down his critics with regularity -- doing scads of appearances with conservative talk radio hosts like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and on Fox News Channel. Rubio even went to the Senate floor in the final days of the immigration debate in the Senate to rebut some of the most common attacks on the bill. Here's that speech:

The idea -- forwarded by Rubio's critics -- that he will be pilloried for his support of immigration reform is based on this false premise: That Republican primary voters won't support someone who, on a high profile issue, feels differently than they do.

People predicting doom for Rubio in 2016 over immigration tend to cite Mitt Romney's struggles to move beyond the health care law he signed in Massachusetts as governor. Yes, there is NO question that Romney's past position on health care hurt him among conservatives in 2012. But, consider:

1. There was already a storyline about Romney as a flip-flopper left over from the 2008 campaign when he changed positions on abortion. The health care law in Massachusetts played into the idea that Romney would say whatever fit the political moment. Rubio doesn't have that issue.

2. Romney never really got his message on health care right. He constantly insisted that his plan was good for Massachusetts but that it shouldn't be replicated nationally  -- and never really explained why. Rubio has a clearer message: Keeping the status quo on immigration in place is far worse than the alternative he backed.

3. Romney won the Republican primary.

Politicians who have failed to sell an issue position where they stand apart from their party almost always fail because they come across as inauthentic. (See: Romney, Mitt.)  Principled opposition can be sold -- as long as it is genuinely principled.

Part of the appeal of someone like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, for example, is not that he lines up exactly with the Republican base but rather that on those issues that he differs, he does so with genuine conviction.  Opposing the use of drones is not exactly an issue that wins Republican primaries but Paul's filibuster on the issue was the single most important moment in the already-started 2016 race so far this year.

Rubio will be able to offset much -- though not all -- of the criticism that will come his way from conservatives by standing on principle, insisting that he thought it was the right thing to do for the country (and the Republican party) and acknowledging that not every one is going to agree with him on every issue.

Then there are the obvious benefits Rubio gets from his involvement in immigration.

* As we noted last week, the major donors of the GOP -- the men and women who serve as building blocks for financing presidential campaigns and write big checks to super PACs -- want immigration reform. And now Rubio is not only on their side but their chief advocate.

* The 50,000 foot narrative about Republicans over the past several years is that they are increasingly insular and unwilling to compromise.  Rubio, by dint of his role in the "Gang of 8",  can present himself as something quite different than that stereotype. Obviously that helps him with independents if he gets to the 2016 general election but we wouldn't underestimate the number of Republicans who also might be looking for a new message/messenger come 2016.

* Rubio is now not just a Hispanic Republican Senator but a Hispanic Republican Senator who played a key role in trying to reform the immigration system. If ever there was a Republican candidate who could make a convincing case to Hispanics as to why they should at least consider voting GOP, Rubio is now the one.

There is good and bad in any major legislative move by a politician as high profile as Rubio. But, the bad here can be counteracted and the good outweighs it anyway. Count Rubio as a winner on immigration -- no matter what (if anything) the House does next.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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David Beard | July 1, 2013