Conservative activists are furious with Marco Rubio. Almost every day, Breitbart and The Daily Caller slam the immigration legislation he helped draft. A week ago, National Review put Rubio’s face on its cover above the word “Folly.” The Tea Party Patriots recently staged an “intervention” targeting Rubio’s legislation. And the man Rubio has called his mentor, former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, just unveiled a Heritage Foundation report alleging that Rubio’s bill will cost over $6 trillion.
Rubio should thank them all for boosting his chances of winning the presidency in 2016.
Earlier this week, Daily Beast contributor Stuart Stevens argued that Rubio’s work on immigration reform “offers almost no foreseeable political gains with his party’s base.” But the Republican base isn’t Rubio’s problem. Yes, Rubio’s immigration push will hurt him among his party’s most hard-core ideologues. But the candidates they support rarely win. Of the last five Republican presidential nominees—Mitt Romney, John McCain, George W. Bush, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush—none were the most conservative major candidates in the GOP primary. But each won because they were conservative enough and because the party establishment rallied behind them. As Ramesh Ponnuru has pointed out, “the Republican establishment always wins presidential-nomination contests, and conservative insurgents almost never do.”
Rubio will be conservative enough. He already has a far stronger relationship with the party’s activist base than Romney, McCain, or George H.W. Bush ever did. Even on immigration, major right-wing figures like Grover Norquist and Sean Hannity have defended him. And it’s unlikely that the conservatives he alienates over immigration reform will prove able to unite behind a rival. In 1988, Ponnuru notes, conservatives unhappy with establishment favorite George H.W. Bush split between Jack Kemp, Pete DuPont, and Pat Robertson. In 1996, conservatives unhappy with establishment favorite Bob Dole split between Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, and Phil Gramm. In 2000, conservatives unhappy with George W. Bush split between Forbes, Gary Bauer, Orrin Hatch, and Alan Keyes. (John McCain ran to Bush’s left.) In 2008, anti-McCain conservatives split between Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Fred Thompson. In 2012, anti-Romney conservatives split between Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum. In 2016, the story will likely be with the same, with anti-Rubio conservatives splitting their votes between some combination of Santorum, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, and Bobby Jindal.
For Rubio, the key to winning the GOP nomination is becoming the undisputed candidate of the GOP establishment. And in that effort, his leadership on immigration helps, both because GOP elites think immigration reform is good for business, and because they think it’s crucial to Republican survival. Already, a group of party heavyweights—led by Haley Barbour and Dan Senor, and bankrolled by Mark Zuckerberg—is running ads in red states urging voters to “stand with Marco Rubio to end de-facto amnesty.”
And if Rubio’s championing of immigration reform doesn’t hurt him in the primaries, it will clearly help him in the general election. Yes, the GOP’s Latino problem goes far beyond immigration: as much as conservatives hate to admit it, Latinos are pretty fond of government. Still, if Rubio can claim credit for comprehensive immigration reform—something Latino activists have been demanding for years—it will help him not only among Latinos, but among young and female voters who think the GOP is rigid and mean. With those voters, the fact that Rubio took abuse from his own side will be a plus. It will help him do what Romney did not: create a personal brand distinct from the GOP’s. And it will be particularly important that Rubio began developing a reputation for independent thinking now, when it can’t be chalked up to election year posturing.
The best models for what Rubio needs to do are Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In the runup to their presidential bids, each picked a fight with the least popular elements of his party: Clinton over welfare reform and crime; Bush over the Gingrich Congress’ lack of “compassion” toward the poor. Thus, they signaled their independence while enhancing their establishment support, in part because they showed they might be able to win. That’s what Rubio needs to do between now and 2016. And thanks in part to his tormentors on the right, he’s well on his way.