I've spent a lot of time with politicians, so it would be fair to assume that my proximity would increase my cynicism about the process, the people, or both. As the saying goes, no man is a hero to his valet – and political consultants are the valets of the modern American political system.
But I've gone the other way. The more time I've spent with men and women in office and running for office, the more I've come to respect the extraordinary pressures they are under and the very personal pain inevitable in a public life where there often seems to be no public space. Unless you have been through it or seen it up close, it's difficult to imagine.
For Congressman and Senators, politics can often feel like a lot of hard work, with little reward. It’s not surprising that many are deciding to walk away.
But some react differently. Take Florida Senator Marco Rubio. He seems to have decided that just being at the Senate prom isn’t enough, that if he’s going to put up with the brutal hours, the public hammering and sweat and tears required to be a successful politician, he’s going to take on the Big Issues that brought him there in the first place.
That’s led us to a remarkable moment in American politics. A junior senator who is considered a future star of his party is taking the lead on an issue that offers almost no foreseeable political gain with the party's base.
Why? I think it’s pretty simple: because Rubio cares about the issue, understands its importance, and sees that we’re at one of those critical contingent moments when a representative can step up and help solve what has seemed like an intractable problem and effect change that will impact the people he represents.
Heath Thompson, a Rubio confident, says, “this really isn’t about politics for him. I know that’s a cliché that we all say during campaigns, but that’s how he is. This is entirely about Marco following his principles, and doing what he thinks is right. Is that popular or politically advantageous? Maybe, maybe not. It doesn’t matter.”
Thompson’s right. When you are a Republican and the National Review is putting your face and name on the cover with the word Folly while Jim DeMint (who Rubio has called a “great man” and a “mentor”) claims your “amnesty” plan would cost $6.3 trillion, you are not going down the path of less resistance.
Still, Rubio did not stumble into this fight, and I suspect he and his team expected and are enjoying the battle. I’ve been in rooms like he’s in now, with a core staff completely committed to their politician and the path he’s chosen. Inevitably, outsiders call them insular. But they will be fearless, win or lose. And only with such a group is victory possible.
It’s interesting, and probably important, to observe how Rubio is handling the onslaught of criticism. Without the tortured labeling of Hillary’s “listening tour,” that’s what’s he’s doing. Instead of stressing that he has all the answers, he’s highlighted that there are no easy solutions and that the legislative effort is a work in process. Rather than lecturing Republicans, he’s asking for their help. He’s counting on the reality that it’s difficult to sustain a high degree of anger at anyone who is calmly asking you for your opinion and actually listening and responding to it.
Despite the divisiveness of the issue, there is one key principle driving Senator Rubio’s argument with which Republicans overwhelmingly agree: the status quo on immigration is unacceptable. As you listen to Rubio, this is the home base from which he begins and returns. “What we have now is a disaster,” he wrote last week in The Wall Street Journal. “It threatens our security, sovereignty, and economy.”
The Florida senator also knows that Republicans rightly believe that President Obama would love nothing more than to offer near blanket amnesty and citizenship to every illegal immigrant in the near future. Like the status quo, that is an unacceptable choice and the only alternative for conservatives, Rubio believes, is to help craft and pass a better legislative solution.
As he put it, not “offering an alternative cannot be the conservative position on immigration reform.”
However this plays out, I’m betting that Marco Rubio will look back on this immigration battle with pride and no regrets. When you are in the middle of a fight this hot and with these stakes, that confidence is a tremendous advantage.