Marco Rubio, immigration reform, and 2016: the big risk

Sen. Marco Rubio, a likely GOP contender for president in 2016, risks alienating conservatives by taking a lead role in pushing for comprehensive immigration reform. But he probably didn't have a choice. 

By , Staff writer

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    Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida speaks on an immigration reform legislation by the Senate's bipartisan 'Gang of Eight' that would create a path for the nation's 11 million unauthorized immigrants to apply for US citizenship, April 18, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
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As Conan O’Brien put it last Saturday night, Marco Rubio is the Republicans’ “black guy.”

That is, he’s the charismatic, young, minority senator who is clearly running for president – as then-Sen. Barack Obama was just a few years ago. And if the early polls on 2016 are any guide, Senator Rubio of Florida is a strong contender, if not the strongest, for the Republican nomination.

But there’s a big difference between how Senator Obama ran for president and how Rubio appears to be running. A quick scan of President Obama’s four-year record in the Senate reveals a junior member who did not get out front on any major issue, and was about to declare his candidacy for president by the start of his third year. By then, Mr. Obama had already wrapped himself up in “hope and change” – gauzy rhetoric upon which voters could project their own aspirations.

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Rubio is in a wholly different boat. As the only experienced Hispanic senator in the Republican Party – now joined by the more hard-line conservative Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas – Rubio is a natural ambassador to a voting bloc that Republicans desperately need to attract. And after GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s poor performance with Latino voters (just 27 percent), Rubio understands that enacting comprehensive immigration reform can help his party overcome Latinos’ resistance to the Republican brand, analysts say.

In response, Rubio has positioned himself as one of the lead Republicans on the issue. He probably had no choice.

“Usually you stay away from having a long vote record or taking on a serious initiative, because having a long vote record can be hazardous to your presidential health,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “But Rubio recognized that if the Republican Party is to win the White House in 2016, it will need more than the white vote.”

By being a point man among Republicans on the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" senators working the issue, Rubio has more control over how the issue plays out than he would have if he had stayed on the sidelines. He’ll be voting on legislation that he has helped craft – even if he isn’t thrilled with every detail – as opposed to voting on someone else’s bill.

But that high-profile perch comes with risks. See Rubio’s smiling face on the latest cover of the conservative National Review, with the headline “Rubio’s Folly.” Inside the magazine, a major opponent of comprehensive immigration reform says that Rubio’s got it all wrong.

“Despite Rubio’s promise to have an enforcement system ‘that ensures we’re never here again with the situation that we face today,’ the Schumer-Rubio bill sets up a replay of the 1986 scenario,” when the last reform was enacted, writes Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, in a piece called  “The Rubio Amnesty.”

(Schumer is Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the lead Democrat in the Gang of Eight and, to many Republicans, a bogeyman. In an embarrassing aside for Mr. Krikorian, the liberal site Talking Points Memo points out that the National Review had airbrushed out two other conservatives on the cover, antitax activist Grover Norquist and Sen. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona, a member of the Gang of Eight. Still in the picture are Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, also in the Gang of Eight, and Senator Schumer.)

Rubio published his own piece online Thursday night in The Wall Street Journal, defending the group’s effort. He called what exists now “de facto amnesty for those who live here illegally,” and noted that the “shortcomings” that have become apparent in the bill can still be addressed.

“For those who believe the road ahead for illegal immigrants is too generous or lenient, Congress will have a chance to make it tougher, yet still realistic,” Rubio writes.

“Of course, there are those who will never support immigration reform no matter what changes we make,” he adds. “Even if we address every concern they raise, they will likely come up with new ones. They have a long list of complaints but typically never offer a solution of their own.”

The trick for the bill’s supporters, as with all legislation, is to find the sweet spot between left and right such that it can pass by a wide majority. Members of the Gang of Eight have said they want the final version to pass the Democratic-run Senate with at least 70 out of 100 votes, creating momentum when it goes to the Republican-controlled House.

If the bill dies, Rubio could wind up looking ineffective – not great for a prospective presidential candidate, though he could still get credit for trying. But if the reform is enacted, and the conservative Republican base is unhappy, that could hurt Rubio’s chances in the Republican primaries.

Still, if the bill is enacted and Rubio wins the Republican nomination – a big “if,” depending on what happens – having his name attached to the effort could help him in the general election.

It’s not just about winning over Latino voters, many of whom vote more on economic and safety-net issues than on immigration. It’s also about reaching moderate general-election voters, who may be convinced that Rubio has the chops to be president if he demonstrates an ability to work across the aisle and pass major legislation. 

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