It was only a matter of time before Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio found themselves at each other’s throats, and that immigration would be a central point of contention between the two. Whether it’s conventional wisdom or wishful thinking, many writers and commentators assume that eventually it will come down to a race between Rubio and Cruz. And regardless of whether that turns out to be the case, Cruz’s attacks since Tuesday night’s debate demonstrate that Rubio needs to do something bold and dramatic to address the immigration issue, which is perhaps his greatest liability at this stage of the race.
During the debate, Ted Cruz seized on the suggestion that the Hillary Clinton campaign was applauding the GOP’s harsh rhetoric about immigrants. “The Democrats are laughing,” Cruz said, “because if Republicans join Democrats as the party of amnesty, we will lose.” The suggestion, I suppose, is that Hispanics inexorably vote Democratic—a premise Cruz’s very existence seems to contradict.
Amazingly, Rubio has mostly been able to avoid talking about immigration during the debates. In fact, he narrowly avoided being asked about it in the debate because others interrupted and caused the moderator to change the subject. It’s unclear what would have happened had he been pressed on the subject.
But during an interview with Fox News the day after the debate, Rubio talked about his past support for immigration reform. “The lesson I learned from that is the people of the United States do not trust the federal government on immigration,” he said. “If you’re a criminal, you’ll be deported. If you’re not a criminal and have been here longer than 10 years, you have to learn English. You have to start paying taxes. You’re going to have to pay a fine. And then you’ll get a work permit.”
This is all utterly defensible, and in no way constitutes a flip-flop. The Senate bill was never really “amnesty,” in the sense that term refers to blanket forgiveness for all illegal immigrants here in the country, which Rubio never supported. It always required having a clean criminal record, paying a fine and taxes, and then waiting a dozen or so years before being eligible for a pathway to citizenship. But since that time, Rubio has seen that comprehensive immigration reform is not politically possible. On top of that, Obama’s executive orders have further poisoned the well. Rubio still believes in reform, but realizes the only way to accomplish it is to first persuade the American public that we can, in fact, secure the border.
This is middle ground. Like almost everything about Rubio, it’s a message that should make Tea Party conservatives happy, without offending or alienating Hispanics. It’s politically and pragmatically responsible. But Cruz and Trump and others will likely try to undermine this message and suggest that Rubio has a hidden agenda and sinister motives.
Rubio has shown that he’s an excellent counterpuncher, and one assumes he has a prepared response to questions about his support of immigration reform—as well as a counterattack on whoever launches the attack (Ted Cruz is for amnesty, too!)—ready to go in the chamber. But it’s dangerous to try to thread a needle in the maelstrom of a debate, where it’s possible that multiple candidates could gang up on you or interrupt you as you speak.
What is more, it is clear that talking about immigration reform in an interview (for example, the Fox News interview cited previously) does not count as a big enough “moment” to take the issue off the table. The perception is that because Rubio hasn’t talked about this in a debate, he hasn’t answered the question (when, in fact, he has talked about his position ad nauseam).
So here’s what I think Rubio must do. I think he must deliver a big speech in the model of Jack Kennedy talking about his Catholic faith or Barack Obama’s “More Perfect Union” speech, which defused the Rev. Wright controversy.
Make no mistake, this would be a risk. Some strategists might prefer trying to duck the issue and hoping it doesn’t come up. It will.
The question is whether Rubio will frame the discussion around values that we all—from white Tea Partiers to Hispanics—embrace, or whether someone else will foist the framing on him.
When attempting to walk a fine line, it’s vitally important that every word is precisely parsed before delivery. Although Rubio is a master at hitting his talking points, but getting this perfect is vital, inasmuch as it amounts to the most important and biggest hurdle that Rubio will have to clear on his way to the nomination.
In an eloquent and ballyhooed speech that forces the press to pay attention and inoculates Rubio from future attacks, he can lay out the case for why America is a nation of immigrants, why we must secure the border and insist on assimilation, and why doing so is both wise and compassionate. And in doing so, he can make that Senate bill he supported old news.
Just as President Obama has frequently talked about the “false choices” that confront us, the notion that the GOP is either an open-borders party that incentivizes lawbreaking—or a nativistic Know-Nothing party that preaches white identity politics—is a bogus notion. Americans can be secure and safe and prudent and simultaneously compassionate and humane and welcoming of diversity.
In fact, Marco Rubio’s candidacy represents the rejection of false choices. You don’t have to go with the establishment moderates—Jeb Bush and John Kasich—or the populists—Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson. You can just go with Rubio.
If delivering this speech comes with a risk, there’s also a potential for a big reward. Rubio has a chance to slay a dragon. He can elevate and then eviscerate the “amnesty” issue. And the message might be that if he can exorcise this demon, and overcome this challenge, that he can overcome anything.
Sometimes people get to be president not just because of the experience they had before they run for president, but also because of the things they say and do during the campaign itself. Marco Rubio has the potential to be a transformational figure and an important president. But he doesn’t have to wait to be sworn in before he gets started. He can deliver a great speech that unites conservatives and destroys the idea that you are either for lawlessness or you are a bigot.