Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) rolled out his immigration plan like it was a presidential campaign — and in some ways it is.
On Sunday Rubio went on the talk shows. His chief of staff on Sunday and Monday tweeted out provisions of the legislation while his staff began circulating summaries and holding discrete calls with reporters. On Wednesday his team lined up evangelicals (including Richard Land and Ralph Reed), the Anti-Defamation League, retailers and other key groups to support his effort. His team sent out “MYTH vs. FACT” missives and “FAQs'” all day to the media. He went on talk radio and batted down an erroneous report from the right blogosphere that the plan would give away free phones. (A release explained that it “includes a provision to give rural residents and business owners near the Mexican border access to cell service and phones so they can quickly report border violence to the police and the Department of Homeland Security” based on the experience of a murdered Arizona rancher.)
The Rubio team used arguments from the left (Too much border security! Too many fines!) to reassure nervous conservatives. On Wednesday a Wall Street Journal editorial referencing the work of economist Doug Holtz-Eakin, who is part of a group of fiscal conservatives supporting immigration reform, argued that “on balance U.S. businesses and the overall economy would benefit from a growing supply of younger immigrants who would have decades of more productive, creative work to contribute to American prosperity.”
The kick-off effort was, in a word, impressive. The adage that you only get to make a first impression once is surely true. But it is also the case that Rubio must, if not defuse, than at least provide counterpoints to immigration exclusionists on the right. So far the right wing exclusionists sound like cranks insisting vaguely that the tough border security provisions can be “manipulated.” (Really? How? Which in particular?) They sound much like the Toomey-Manchin opponents who insisted it promoted a gun registry even though it increased penalties for creating one. At some point the paranoid halllucinations become laughable.
As for the left, it will be up to the Democrats on the Gang of 8 and the White House (ugh, that might be a weak link in the chain) to bring along liberals and immigration activists complaining about the length of time to get a green card and other law enforcement measures.
Rubio’s effort could well result in failure, just as the 2007 immigration reform pitch did. But several things are different this time around. Republicans have been on a losing streak and understand, at least many of them, that they need to change the face of the party and expand its appeal. In addition, Rubio is well liked on the right (in contrast to Arizona Sen. John McCain, who was always viewed with suspicion) and gets a cordial hearing on the left. The pro-immigration forces are better organized and more diverse this time around. Some significant evangelical leaders have weighed in on his side, splitting the right wing of the party.
Now we also saw on Wednesday how easy it can be for the minority to obstruct legislation in the Senate. Certainly, the road ahead in the House is treacherous. At least for one day however, even with the Boston bombing story and the gun background-check votes brewing, he was able to get his message out and demonstrate he had done a whole lot of legwork beforehand. That should buoy the spirits of those who favor comprehensive immigration reform.