Rubio's Immigration Flip-Flop

Senator Marco Rubio made immigration reform his trademark issue—until it gained Democratic support. Inside the GOP’s ill-fated tactic of refusing cross-party cooperation.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio thought he was cementing himself as a Leader of Republicans™ when he rushed to put comprehensive immigration reform on the party’s agenda. And the bill that came out of this—the “Gang of Eight” proposal in the Senate—is his baby; attuned to his priorities and meant to address the concerns of a skeptical conservative base.

But, the cries of an establishment desperate to stem its bleeding with Latino voters notwithstanding, right-wing Republicans don’t want immigration reform. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, attacked Rubio’s proposal as “amnesty” that would cost the public trillions of dollars, and rank-and-file House Republicans lined up against the bill, unwilling to support a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, and suspicious of White House support for the legislation. Rubio’s advocacy has alienated the Republican base, and turned him into something of a pariah, if not a Republican In Name Only.

To compensate for this, the Florida senator dove headfirst into the crusade to defund the Affordable Care Act with procedural brinksmanship. But as predicted by nearly everyone outside the cocoon of the Tea Party, this was a tremendous failure that has damaged the GOP brand to the point of collapse. The good news for Rubio, however, is that the shutdown derailed the push for comprehensive immigration reform, and bought him a little breathing room.

But now that the debacle is over and Republicans have (momentarily) backed away from the kamikaze tactics of its base, immigration has crept back onto the national stage. And Rubio is desperate to distance himself from the “Gang of Eight” bill, hence his recent decision to back away from comprehensive reform. “At this point, the most realistic way to make progress on immigration would be through a series of individual bills,” said Rubio spokesman Alex Conant in an email to Breitbart News. “Any effort to use a limited bill as a ruse to trigger a conference that would then produce a comprehensive bill would be counterproductive.”

Given Rubio’s palpable anxiety over his status with the right-wing, this doesn’t come as a surprise. What is striking, however, is the extent to which you can look at Rubio as a lagging indicator for the Republican Party. Like most of the GOP, the Florida senator has now given up on appealing to the broad majority of the country. Moderation—either in policy or in tactics—is off the table. Instead, Republicans have dug in to their positions; not only is comprehensive immigration reform not an option, but some lawmakers are wary of a budget deal. Why? Because they don’t want to make concessions.

The public is disgusted with this intransigence, but Republicans don’t care. Nothing, it seems, will budge them from their opposition to give-and-take of governance. Indeed, just this afternoon, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell rejected a proposal to “de-weaponize” the debt ceiling and end the threat of voluntary default, calling the plan “outrageous” and a “gimmick.”

It’s tempting to blame all of this on the Tea Party. Yes, the base plays a powerful role in the GOP. But let’s save some scrutiny for the procedural moderates of the Republican Party; the men and women who see no problem with following rules and working through the normal channels of government. Sure, they’ll voice opposition to the radicalism of their right-wing colleagues, but when push comes to shove, they’re unwilling to take action. These conservatives form the majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives. If they stood against the Tea Party, they could break some of the gridlock in Congress. But because they don’t want a primary challenge, they stay quiet, giving momentum to the extremists, and damaging themselves in the process.