How Marco Rubio lost on immigration

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. On Monday, we argued that Rubio ultimately helped himself in regards the 2016 presidential race. Today we make the case that he hurt himself. Which do you agree with?

There are three main reasons why Sen. Marco Rubio's decision to join the "Gang of 8"'s push for comprehensive immigration reform leave him in a worse position headed toward the 2016 presidential campaign: 1) Conservative criticism 2) Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) 3) and the increasing likelihood that the bill won't ever make it to the president's desk.


(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Let's take a look at each reason in more detail:

1. Conservative criticism: Rubio was the bill's chief conservative salesman for months. He did countless interviews with conservative commentators, ensured that the political right would not be strong-armed in the amendment process by liberal Democrats, and stood up to his most vocal critics.

Despite all that, he faced a lot of criticism from the political right, where a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants is viewed with skepticism -- to put it generously. What's more, immigration reform is not a winning argument among many of the conservative activists in Iowa and South Carolina that play an outsized role in the presidential nominating process.

A recent poll from The Washington Post and ABC News shows that Rubio has experienced an 11-point drop in “strongly favorable” ratings among Republicans, compared to last August. The poll shows Rubio's popularity among Democrats has ticked up. But it's not enough to be popular with general election votes if you don't first make it out of the primary.

2. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.): Paul looks and sounds like someone gearing up for a presidential bid. (That's because he is.) He's traveling to the early states, courting young voters, and elevating his profile in Washington. He also opposed the immigration bill.

And that's a potential problem for Rubio. Paul now has a concrete issue on which he could get to the right of the Florida senator in the lead-up to the Iowa Caucuses. Paul called for tighter border security provisions, but was rebuffed by his Senate colleagues, prompting him to announce that he couldn't support the final measure. It's not difficult to envision the attack ads and debate talking points Paul and his allies could launch against Rubio on this front.

3. Immigration bill doesn't equal immigration law: There's no doubt the bill that passed the Senate was a major victory for immigration reform advocates. But the chances of getting a bill to the president's desk that the Gang of 8 would approve of (it would have to include a path to citizenship) aren't looking bright right now. And for Rubio, there is a difference between having a law to point to in the coming years as the fruits of his labor versus an effort that ultimately fell short. The former would bolster the case that Rubio is a problem-solver with results on his resume far more than the latter.

House Speaker John Boehner  has promised 1) that he won't simply take up the Senate bill and 2) nothing will come to a vote that doesn't have the support of the majority of his GOP Conference. Those conditions will make it awfully tough for the House to pass something the Democratic Senate and White House will sign off on.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

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Sean Sullivan · July 2, 2013

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