That answer both surprised and intrigued me because, yes, Rubio was talking specifically about immigration reform, but his comment also offers a broader insight into how politicians -- in this case one openly considering a run for president -- view the electorate.
Rubio, in essence, is saying that the blowback among the conservative rank and file over immigration wasn't really about immigration. Rather, it was about the federal government trying to do something "comprehensive" about anything. His argument also helps to explain the distrust/dislike/abiding hatred within conservative circles for the Affordable Care Act, the economic stimulus plan and Common Core (among other national programs administered in part or in toto by the federal government).
Polling evidence suggests that Rubio is right about what Americans -- or, at least, Republicans -- want (or don't) from government. Asked to named the biggest problem facing the United States in 2014, 18 percent of people named "government" in a year-end Gallup poll. That put government in a statistical tie with "the economy in general" (17 percent) and "unemployment/jobs" (15 percent) as people's perceived biggest concerns.
Concerns about government are on the rise in year-over-year Gallup polling as well.
What's clear from the chart above is that worries about government have been steadily on the rise during President Obama's tenure -- nearly tripling since he took office. Although Gallup didn't provide party breakdowns for the question, it's not much of a logical leap to assume that the increasing worries about "government" as a problem for the country come largely from Republican resistance to Obama's approach to governance and government.
Of course, that's the electorate Rubio will need to understand/placate if he decides to run for president in 2016. One that looks at the lack of productivity by recent Congresses and thinks "good." One that nods in agreement when anti-tax activist Grover Norquist says his goal is "to cut government in half in 25 years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."
The obvious problem as a politician -- especially one running for president -- in dealing with an electorate that is suspicious of anything big-ish that government does is that such a mindset makes it tough to propose much of anything you would want to do at the federal level. And, usually, one of the requirements of running to be the head of the federal government is that you have some sort of semi-fleshed-out vision of what you would do with that government if you were elected.
It's possible that such a vision could be to shrink the federal government and empower the states to take the lead in terms of policy-making. That seemed to be Texas Gov. Rick Perry's plan before his 2012 presidential bid imploded. But, as a sitting senator -- Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, we are looking at you -- it's tougher to make the case that the federal government should stay away from doing anything grand, in vision if not in spending and/or scope.
Rubio has rightly analyzed the state of the Republican electorate. The question is: What -- if anything -- he can do to harness that insight if/when he runs for president?