“I used to like him.”
This is the response I most often hear from fellow Latinos when I ask a simple question: “So, what do you think of Marco?” As in Marco Rubio, the 43-year-old senator from Florida who seems to be gearing up to compete for the Republican nomination for president. If so, he’ll come bearing gifts.
First, Rubio has youth, energy and a fresh face—things that could provide a dramatic contrast if Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton, who will be 68 years old when Democrats gather at their national convention in 2016.
Second, it also doesn’t hurt that Rubio is Cuban-American at a time when the GOP has dug itself such a deep hole with Hispanic voters, which represent a growing share of the electorate. As many as 12 million Hispanics could vote in 2016.
Third, as anyone who has ever heard Rubio give a speech or do an interview already knows, he is a master communicator. He does himself a lot of good whenever he appears before live audiences, who seem to appreciate his plainspokenness.
Fourth, presidential campaigns run on passion. Up until a few weeks ago, Rubio seemed to lack it. Then the White House proposed opening up relations with Cuba, and it gave Rubio—a harsh critic of the change—an opening to offer a counter view.
Finally, Rubio could save the GOP. Rather than millionaires who try to relate to the middle-class, imagine a bright young man who could tell—in English or Spanish—a compelling tale about growing up with humble means as the “son of exiles.”
Actually, not exiles. While Rubio has implied that his parents were refugees from Cuba, they actually came to the United States in 1956—three years before Fidel Castro took power. Now he refers to his parents as “immigrants.”
Rubio talked about his parents during a speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa. “They immigrated to America with little more than the hope of a better life,” he said. “My dad was a bartender. My mom was a cashier, a hotel maid and a clerk at Kmart. They never made it big. They were never rich. Yet, they were successful—because just a few decades removed from hopelessness, they made possible for us all the things that had been impossible for them.”
Rubio shines when talking about what he calls “the American miracle.” As he sees it, “we’re exceptional not because we have more rich people here. We’re special because dreams that are impossible anywhere else, they come true here.”
Bravo. This is a powerful message, and Rubio is exactly the right messenger. But it’s also problematic. After all, who gets to dream? Are the undocumented disqualified?
In an ironic twist, Rubio gets a lot of grief from an issue that should have been a slam-dunk. The trouble isn’t that Rubio is saying the wrong things on immigration, but that it seems he’ll say whatever you want him to say. He has confused and angered many people who might have supported him, and he has tarnished his brand. Like the current White House occupant, he wants to be both tough and compassionate.
Rubio wants to be tough in order to please conservative voters who cast ballots in the GOP primary; but he needs to be compassionate to please a higher authority: Mom.
In February 2013, Rubio told Time that his mother, Oriales Garcia Rubio, had left him a voice mail urging him to lay off “los pobrecitos” (the poor little ones).
“Tony, some loving advice from the person who cares for you most in the world,” Rubio’s mother said in Spanish, using her nickname for the senator. “Don’t mess with the immigrants, my son. Please, don’t mess with them. They’re human beings just like us, and they came for the same reasons we came. To work. To improve their lives. So please, don’t mess with them.”
A few months later, Rubio joined the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” in introducing an immigration reform plan that included a path to citizenship. But Rubio later backed away from his own bill, which solidified his reputation as a flip-flopper. He said that the first priority was to secure the border. But he was also getting pressure from constituents who insisted that his support for immigration reform would doom his career. A top Rubio aide told me that the Cuban-American, in those days, was getting nativist hate mail telling him—comically—to “go back to Mexico.”
There is one aspect of the debate that Rubio considers no laughing matter: What to do with undocumented young people who were brought here by their parents, the so-called DREAMers. As early as 2011, Rubio was telling supporters that he wanted to find a special accommodation for DREAMers.
He had the right instinct. In December 2010, along with five Democrats, Senate Republicans had killed the DREAM Act. The bill would have given undocumented youth a path to legal status if they went to college or joined the military. Once it was dead, Republicans feared they were vulnerable to criticism and concluded that they should propose a DREAM Act of their own.
Rubio was supposed to carry the bill, the details of which had been worked out by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona. But, for some reason, Rubio flinched.
So President Obama stole his thunder. In June 2012, the chief executive unveiled a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). It gave undocumented young people the chance to apply for two-year work permits and a temporary reprieve from deportation. More than 500,000 people applied.
A few months ago, the president doubled down with another series of executive actions, called Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA), which essentially extends the accommodation to undocumented parents with U.S.-born children.
Meanwhile, Republicans are busy fighting the last war. And sadly, you-know-who is leading the way.
Last week, during a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, Rubio called DACA a mistake and insisted that it must be terminated. “The 2012 order has to come to end at some point,” he said. “That executive order will expire at the end of this presidency. It can’t be the permanent policy of the United States. I think it was wrong to make that decision in the first place.”
Rubio also scoffed at an idea that he once championed—that DREAMers deserve special status.
“This idea that our immigration laws somehow need to be ignored is quite frankly ridiculous,” he said. “Every nation on earth has immigration laws, including the nations some of these people are coming from. If you are in violation of those laws, you should not be claiming that you have some right to ignore those laws.”
So Rubio was in favor of an accommodation for DREAMers before he was against it. This is how you make hash. I’m not even sure he knows where he stands, other than a determination to snuggle up to restrictionists by proving that—despite his last name—he hasn’t gone “native.”
Shame on you, Tony, for messing with “los pobrecitos.” Haven’t you learned? Mother knows best.