Word on the street (okay, on the internet) is that Marco Rubio has changed his tune on immigration reform.
He might benefit from this perception, but that doesn’t make it true.
One can feasibly support a DREAM Act and a pathway to citizenship, while also opposing President Obama’s unilateral orders bypassing the legislative process. And one can, having tried (and failed) to pass comprehensive immigration reform, strategically conclude that a piecemeal approach is more politically attainable.
These are not inconsistent or irrational positions. But the problem for Rubio (and for any conservative attempting to occupy this reasonable space) is that the world wants to push him to extremes. More specifically, Obama and conservative activists want to push him toward the restrictionist side of the immigration reform ledger.
For Obama’s part, destroying the potential for Republicans to have a rising star capable of attracting Hispanic voters seems to be a worthwhile goal. With a relatively weak bench, it wouldn’t exactly do for Democrats to have to compete with an eloquent Hispanic U.S. Senator who is the son of immigrants, fluent in Spanish, speaks about the American Dream, and just happens to be a Republican.
In order to be an existential threat to Democrats, Rubio would need two bases — conservatives and Hispanics. And so, Democrats would have to find a way to make these two things mutually exclusive. They would have to make him pick.
They have largely done so. And, ironically, conservatives were complicit.
When Obama first issued his DREAM order, I condemned it as a cynical example of political gamesmanship that would sow division and make it harder to ever achieve any sort of consensus on common sense immigration reform. After all, Rubio had already proposed his own DREAM Act (which immediately became DOA once Obama bypassed the legislative process).
Unfortunately, that was a feature, not a bug. Obama was even shrewder than even I gave him credit for. In essence, he has effectively made it untenable for a Republicans to side of DREAMers – and the rule of law and separation of powers.
This has left Republicans in the position of advocating against Obama’s enforcement priorities — that is, advocating against deprioritizing the removals of longtime residents with jobs, families or ties to their communities who don’t pose a public safety threat, the DREAMers included, to focus on the removal of serious criminals and recent border crossers. And though Republicans don’t like to admit this directly, they are now left advocating for refocusing enforcement priorities on the removal of those low-priority populations.
Human nature being what it is, people tend to identify with those who protect them, and be repelled by those who threaten them. This is true of Hispanics who believe Republicans dislike them, and one suspects it is true of Republicans who start to believe DREAMers are out to get them.
This, of course, brings us to a recent speech Rubio gave in South Carolina.
As Peter Hamby reported, after Rubio’s speech was interrupted by DREAMer protesters, “One elderly audience member shoved a protester as he weaved his way through the tables. Another, 73-year old Army veteran Turk Culberson, angrily stalked them out of the building, clutching his cane as if it were a baseball bat.”
This sort of behavior makes conservatives look bad, but think of the psychological implications for Rubio. It’s hard to sympathize with people who shout you down. Would you blame him for asking himself this question: “Why should I put my political future on the line for people who don’t even like me?”
There’s also the fact that taking on the protesters is actually good politics for someone trying to win a Republican primary — especially for someone who took a beating for his past support of immigration reform. As Hamby reported (regarding the interruption): “A plugged-in Republican operative turned to a reporter and observed dryly, ‘I couldn’t think of a better way to make Rubio look good in South Carolina.’”
So here we have a situation where the DREAMers, by virtue of interrupting and protesting Rubio, are seeking to turn a potential friend into a foe. And you have a situation where conservative activists, by virtue of defending Rubio from the interruption, seem to be welcoming him back into the fold. (And it must feel good to finally get praised by the conservative websites that had slammed you.)
It’s too early to know how this shakes out. As I noted earlier, there is nothing he has said or done so far that amounts to Rubio having crossed the Rubicon. His positions are still intellectually consistent. He can still be pro-immigration reform, but anti-unilateral orders.
But the centrifugal force is powerful. It’s in everyone interest for Marco Rubio to become more of an immigration restrictionist — or, at least, to stress those positions in his rhetoric. This is in the Democrats’ best interest — it’s in the conservative base’s best interest (at least, they think)… Hell, it’s even in Marco Rubio’s best short-term interest.
It’s in everybody’s best interest … except, possibly in the long-term best interest of the GOP and the conservative movement, who, after all, might someday regret having helped kill the Republican immigration strategy.
Diversity is sometimes a good thing. There is a reason we diversify our investments, but here, the universe wants conformity. Everyone wants Republicans to be anti-immigration. It’s just simpler that way.