April 8, 2013

Vaminos? Marco Rubio’s On-and-Off Love Affair with Immigration Reform

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A telegenic Hispanic face, rapidly ascending the 2016 presidential shortlist of a party badly in need of a suntan, Marco Rubio has predictably became the GOP go-to man for immigration reform. The junior senator from Florida stands at the crossroads of a reform effort that is perhaps the most confounding political issue in decades: despite both sides’ insistence that they wish to see an immigration bill on President Obama’s desk, someone, either in the short-term or long-term, will lose.

In one scenario, touted by the left, Democrats will strike another blow for social justice and conveniently welcome hundreds of thousands of grateful recent immigrants into their fold. In the other, Republicans will swallow down the somewhat bitter pill of reform with guarantees of increases of border security  —remind me again why that’s necessary? — thereby shoring up the Party’s 21st century image and endearing themselves to otherwise conservative immigrant groups who can forestall the demographic doom that is all but guaranteed by the time Madame President is up for reelection in 2020 (forgive me this one Hillary joke). The scenarios are, obviously, mutually exclusive.

So what’s a 2016 contender like Rubio to do? Fence-sit.

Senator Rubio, after weeks of negotiations in the Group of Eight bipartisan negotiators, recently issued a press release calling for Patrick Leahy, venerable Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, warning against “excessive haste” in the negotiation process. It is hard to justify the use of the word “hasty”; George W. Bush proposed a similar immigration bill back in 2007, only to have it die in the Senate. In the six years since, our immigration system has floundered and failed. Rubio is not vacillating for the same reason that Republicans have attempted to deprive President Obama of the opportunity to (rightfully) take credit for increased border security. It’s the same reason why Republicans, from Olympia Snowe on healthcare to Lindsey Graham on energy, have fled bipartisan reform efforts because of “procedural” issues: they still aren’t convinced of the pro-reform political calculus.

Marco Rubio’s tiptoeing around the issue of immigration is understandable, as he cannot feasibly hope to remain the flaunted conservative icon he is today if he is the maverick Republican to back a longtime liberal goal of immigration reform. But flaunted conservative icons do not necessarily make successful presidential candidates. Just ask Ron Paul. Or Rick Santorum. Or – who’s that third one? – Rick Perry. But the pressure is building: a recent deal struck between the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has created a broad pro-reform movement that has come to encompass the political mainstream. Rubio may not want to incite a revolt among colleagues whose support he may need in the coming year, but he certainly doesn’t want to be seen as the Hispanic Senator who killed immigration reform.

Lindsey Graham has been eager to dismiss speculation that Rubio has been back away from reform; as a fellow member of the Gang of Eight who is approaching reelection in deep red South Carolina, Graham’s “70-30” optimism is reassuring for reform advocates. But with New York’s Chuck Schumer finally hoping to present a comprehensive bill this week, the moment of truth is fast approaching. If Rubio can navigate the complexities of Republican politics and mold and immigration bill that marries conservative values with a progressive ideal, he will indeed demonstrate that the Grand Old Party still, at least in part, deserves its name.

Rubio’s dilemma is indicative of a much larger problem now facing the Republican Party. Having lost the popular vote in three of the four general elections of the 21st century (and the one they won was by no means a landslide), the GOP is scrambling for a savior. In reality, of course, their eventual savior cannot simply be Sean Hannity’s deified vision of Ronald Reagan. President Reagan himself was very much the pragmatist, just as is drone-loving, Social Security-cutting President Obama. That is how rational political actors behave when they want to win. Marco Rubio must decide whether he wants to continue the mindless GOP obstruction of the last four years by finding some technicalities over which he can have a last-minute panic attack. More importantly, he must decide if he wishes to perpetuate the inane policy prescriptions of the 21st century Republican party, meant more to please the readers of the Drudge Report than to present nuanced solutions for pressing national issues (read: self-deportation). Lindsey Graham and John McCain are faces of the past. Marco Rubio is, quite openly, proclaiming himself as the future. He ought to embrace this potential return to serious governance, not just for his own ambitions or for the demographic rewards for his party, but for the faith it will restore in our political system. It’s been far too long since we’ve had a comprehensive reform effort that has been passed by much more than a party-line vote. Rubio ought to change that.

But then again, on Capitol Hill it’s never too late to screw something up.

Original Author: Jacob Glick

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