July 8, 2011

Poor Marco Rubio. Florida’s junior senator could have been a contender. Instead, he’s become a caricature.

In parts of the Hispanic community, Rubio is thought of as just another ambitious politician who is willing to sell out Latinos to curry favor with Anglo colleagues. That’s what you hear from Internet chatter, letters to the editor, Latino listservs and comments on Spanish-language media.

Just seven months after taking office, the Republicans’ great Latino hope has squandered the one thing that made him unique, interesting and valuable to his party: the potential that he could help mend fences with disaffected Latino voters alienated by the GOP’s simplistic and mean-spirited approach to the immigration issue.

In a recent poll by Latino Decisions and ImpreMedia, immigration was the No. 1 issue for Latino voters, topping jobs and the economy by more than 15 points. More than half of the respondents said they know someone who is undocumented. This issue hits close to home.

Over the past few years, Republicans have dug themselves into a hole with Latino voters, and Rubio was supposed to help pull them out. It’s one reason that Beltway pundits continue to speculate whether he could wind up as the GOP’s vice presidential nominee in 2012 and whether this alone would be enough to persuade Latinos to give Republicans a fair hearing.

This is what Rubio was supposed to bring to the party. Otherwise, what good is he to his colleagues if he can only deliver votes — for instance, from Tea Partyers — that would probably go to Republicans anyway?

Former Florida Republican Party chairman Al Cardenas believes that Rubio could do the GOP a lot of good in 2012. Now head of the American Conservative Union, Cardenas recently told Politico that putting Rubio on the presidential ticket would “almost guarantee” a Republican victory.

Cardenas needs to get out more — out of Florida and, better yet, out to the Southwest.

Rubio is becoming persona non grata among Latinos outside of the Cuban American community, which represents only 3 percent of the Latino population in the United States. Specifically, he is becoming intensely disliked by many naturalized Mexicans and Mexican Americans, who make up as much as 67 percent of the U.S. Latino population. Those voters could affect the electoral outcome in battleground states such as Colorado and New Mexico, and in vote-rich states such as Texas and California.

All this has happened because, since arriving in Washington, Rubio has followed his party’s pitiful example of dealing with the immigration issue in a clumsy, reactionary and unimaginative way.

A few months ago, the Miami Herald reported that conservative activists in Florida — including members of the Tea Party — were pushing Rubio to take a hard line on immigration. They complained that the issue wasn’t even listed on his Web site and that Rubio hadn’t co-sponsored any legislation to beef up immigration enforcement.

So Rubio joined the feel-good but do-nothing effort in Congress — led by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) — to make it mandatory for businesses to participate in the “E-Verify” program, which is supposed to tell them whether a Social Security number is authentic. He even became a co-sponsor of the companion bill proposed by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Republicans hope that Rubio’s support will dull the accusation that the legislation is anti-Latino because the measure could discourage employers from hiring Latinos who are assumed to be in the country illegally.

Rubio also supports the Arizona immigration law, which directs local and state law enforcement to enforce federal immigration statutes. And, he told the television network Telemundo, he opposes the reintroduced Dream Act, which would give legal status to illegal immigrants who go to college or enlist in the military, because he considers it “part of some broader effort to grant blanket amnesty.”

This self-proclaimed “son of exiles” has it all wrong. It’s fine to be tough on immigration, but you don’t have to be predictable and shallow. When that happens, people assume you’re not really thinking through this issue but simply following the herd and pandering to the special interests controlling your party.

As a Latino conservative, Rubio was bound to struggle with the immigration issue. Had he been too lenient on illegal immigrants, fellow conservatives would have accused him of leading with his heart. Now that he’s gone in the other direction, fellow Latinos will accuse him of not having one.

Ruben Navarrette is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.