If you were a presidential candidate sitting at five percent in national polls, you probably wouldn’t be leaning back in your chair and saying, “Excellent. It’s all falling into place, just as I planned.” But that may be what Marco Rubio is thinking. And that could explain why he just took a step to the right on immigration. But more on that in a sec.
Despite the fact that Rubio has been languishing in single digits, it’s plausible to think that the Republican nomination race is heading toward a place where — just as the smart people thought from the beginning — it will ultimately be a contest between two candidates, one representing the establishment and one representing the grass roots. Despite everything that has happened to him over the last few years, Rubio could be the latter.
Let’s look first at Rubio’s comments this week, in which he said he would not pursue a path to citizenship for at least 10 or 12 years:
“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.”
Rubio’s campaign says that this isn’t a change from what he has been saying all along, but what’s different is that he put a time frame around a path to citizenship — “in 10 or 12 years” — one that says that it won’t happen while he’s president. While that isn’t quite the same as saying he opposes a path to citizenship, in practical terms it’s the same thing, since he is explicitly acknowledging that President Rubio will not be offering undocumented immigrants the thing they want most.
Rubio’s evolution on the issue of immigration is in many ways a microcosm of what his party has gone through in the last few years. He came to the Senate in 2010 as a Tea Party hero, hailed as the future of the GOP. After its defeat in the 2012 election, the party insisted that it needed to pass comprehensive immigration reform in order to have any chance of winning the support it would need from Hispanics if it were to take back the White House. Rubio joined the “Gang of 8” to craft a comprehensive bill, which passed the Senate in the summer of 2013 but died in the House. After being called a traitor and a coddler of illegal aliens by the same conservative activists who had lifted him up not long before, Rubio abandoned his effort at comprehensive reform. As a presidential candidate, he has focused on the same “Secure the border first!” message as most of the Republican field.
Throughout, Rubio has said that a path to citizenship would be at the end of a lengthy process that begins with border security. But by saying it won’t happen while he’s president, he’s making explicit what was implied before: if your plan is “secure the border first,” you don’t ever have to move beyond that, because you can always say the border isn’t yet 100 percent “secure.”
This does move Rubio to the right of other candidates who have said they’d support an eventual path to citizenship, if only because they maintain the fiction that it might happen while they’re president. In that way, you could look at Rubio’s immigration statement as less calculated than candid. With a Republican Congress that has no interest in comprehensive reform, particularly in the House, where most GOP members come from safe conservative districts and fear only a challenge from the right, there’s little or no chance that comprehensive reform would actually pass.
So let’s return to the question of how this could work out in the primary campaign. The bizarre events of this nomination race should discourage anyone from making predictions, but let me lay out what surely must be Rubio’s preferred scenario. First, the Republican electorate’s flirtation with the troika of outsider candidates (Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina) winds itself down, as each in turn moves through the familiar cycle of fascination to scrutiny to rejection. More of the lower-performing candidates drop out — perhaps Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal, and Chris Christie. The ones who are left, like Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee, find it difficult to move beyond their core of committed supporters. Before you know it, this looks like a race between Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.
A contest between Bush and Rubio would bring the immigration issue to the fore, because they are the two who have the greatest potential to court Hispanic voters. One is an actual Hispanic, while the other is married to a Mexican immigrant and speaks Spanish at home. While their positions are broadly similar, they’re distinguished from much of the rest of the field because they talk about immigrants as though they were actual human beings.
As it happens, Bush doesn’t actually support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. While he has said, “I believe that DREAM Act kids should have a path to citizenship,” on undocumented immigrant adults, his position is that they should have a path to “legal status,” which means they would be able to stay here on a permanent basis, but would not be citizens. But the fact that Rubio is the one who’s Hispanic by birth could enable him to position himself to Jeb’s right: he could court conservative voters (who don’t like Bush to begin with) and still assure the party establishment that he’d be able to bring in a healthy chunk of the Hispanic electorate in the fall just by virtue of his heritage.
There are reasons why the latter might not prove true — Mexican-Americans and those who trace their heritage to other countries in Latin America might not feel much cultural affinity with the Cuban-American Rubio, and the policy differences would play a large role in their calculation as well. But it’s not an unreasonable case to make. And it could mean that Marco Rubio now thinks he might be the Republican savior after all, even if he is at just five percent in the polls.