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How Marco Rubio is enticing conservatives on immigration reform

So how can Republicans who want immigration reform get conservatives to accept it, given that Obama also wants it?

Republicans pushing for reform have come up with a strategic answer to that question, one that isn’t really acknowledged openly. They are subtly making the case to their base that a defeat for immigration reform is actually a hidden victory for Obama, and that passing the Senate compromise is actually worse for the President than the alternative, i.e. doing nothing.

In this sense, the immigration reform debate is perhaps the ultimate test of what Obama referred to as the need to create a “permission structure” — that is, a way for conservatives to accept something Obama wants, too. The message — which is carefully couched — is that, yes, Obama wants immigration reform, but conservatives should accept the Gang of Eight compromise because the alternative is actually better for the President.

You can see this strategy on display in Marco Rubio’s big Op ed piece in the Wall Street Journal today calling on Republicans to embrace the Gang of Eight compromise. Note this formulation in particular:

The immigration-reform bill in the Senate is a solid starting point for solving this problem, and I believe it can be made even better as Congress begins to actively work on it in committee next week. But defeating it without offering an alternative cannot be the conservative position on immigration reform. That would leave the issue entirely in the hands of President Obama and leave in place the disastrous status quo.

The wording in the last sentence is very carefully chosen. The idea is that if we don’t pass the Gang of Eight plan, Obama wins. This case is being made on several levels. On the one hand, this notion of leaving the issue “entirely in the hands of Obama” is a partly a suggestion that the President just may use his executive powers to solve the undocumented immigrant problem himself if we don’t pass the Senate plan — just as he did with the DREAMers — even as conservatives get nothing of what they want: No increased enforcement, no E-Verify, nothing. At times, when speaking directly to conservative audiences, Rubio has made this case explicitly, as he did in this radio interview with Mark Levin:

“If we don’t do anything, then the status quo remains, which is they won’t do anything. You won’t have E-Verify, you won’t have…. In fact, I think it’s possible that they could give legal status like they did to the DREAM Act qualificators, I mean  people who qualified under the DREAM Act — they could do the same thing to millions of people more. What would stop them from doing that?”

This idea of the dangers of leaving in place “the disastrous status quo” is also an effort to make the case that failing to act now carries hidden benefits for Obama. The argument Rubio is making is a play on the notion that many conservatives simply don’t believe Obama is securing the border, despite record numbers of deportations and billions spent on border security. The Senate compromise would include massive new resources for border security; Rubio’s suggestion here is that failure to embrace it will allow Obama to continue failing to protect the border. Obama wins again!

There’s a key nuance here. As I understand the thinking, GOP base voters are turned off by the political argument that we must reform immigration because if we don’t, Obama will be able to screw Republicans over politically with Latinos. The reason the political argument doesn’t work is partly because many GOP base voters are persuaded that immigration reform will create a whole lot of Democratic voters — in purely political terms, rank-and-file members of the GOP base believe immigration reform is a net win for Democrats no matter how you slice it.

That’s why the argument can’t be openly stated as: If we embrace reform, Obama loses. It has to be carefully calibrated in the manner Rubio has adopted: Not doing anything opens the door for a far greater victory for Obama later. He will be able to do for the undocumented what he did for the DREAMers — while not securing the border — a twofer for Obama.

Obama is playing his part in this dance, too. He and the White House frequently take care to say — not in these exact words, but this is the message — that while he supports the Senate compromise, it’s far from the liberal dream legislation he’d like. And this isn’t just rhetorical: Obama really did remove himself from the process and allow bipartisan Senators, with heavy involvement from Republicans like Rubio and Lindsey Graham, create their compromise.

It’s been widely observed that we’re stalemated in Washington because GOP base voters can’t accept the idea of their representatives compromising with Obama. The President has hatched the idea of a “permission structure” to get around this problem. The immigration debate is looming as the number one test of this strategy. The rub is that Republicans, quietly, are also in on it.