What is Marco Rubio up to?

He wants credit with Latinos for brokering an immigration reform deal, and with the Tea Party for slowing it down

Published April 1, 2013 7:46PM (EDT)

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.                 (AP/Alex Brandon)
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. (AP/Alex Brandon)

It was the mystery left in the wake of the Sunday shows: Just before Sen. Chuck Schumer was set to tell “Meet the Press” that the so-called Gang of Eight is on the verge of a deal on immigration reform, Sen. Marco Rubio sent out a statement headlined,  “Rubio: No Final Agreement on Immigration Legislation Yet.” It read, in part, “Reports that the bipartisan group of eight senators have agreed on a legislative proposal are premature."

Schumer went ahead and kvelled about being close to a deal, anyway. “With the agreement between business and labor, every major policy issue has been resolved on the ‘Gang of Eight,’” he told NBC’s Chuck Todd. A GOP Gang member, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, sounded more cautiously optimistic. "We're much closer with labor and business agreeing on this guest-worker plan," Flake told Todd. "But that doesn't mean we've crossed every 'I' or dotted every 'T' or vice versa." They were referring to a deal on the status of low-skilled immigrant workers brokered Friday night by AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka and U.S. Chamber of Commerce head Tom Donohue.

So why was Rubio contradicting his fellow Gang members? Because he’s running for president in 2016, and trying to balance two pretty incompatible constituencies: his Tea Party base and Latinos.

The freshman Florida senator wants the stature bump that would come with being key to hammering out a deal, but he can’t let it come about too quickly, lest he seem to have capitulated to Schumer.

“The Senate is littered with Republicans who negotiated with Chuck Schumer, thinking they had one deal when he had something else entirely in mind,” Florida-based GOP consultant Rick Wilson told Chris Cilizza of the Washington Post. Cilizza concludes:

In the end, Rubio has to be able to say to conservatives something along these lines: “I fought with Democrats. I told them what we needed to allow undocumented workers a path to citizenship. They didn’t want it but I held firm and we got it done.”

And that can’t be seen happening so quickly, I guess. But the entire charade requires something even tougher than merging the interests of Latinos and the Tea Party: Rubio wants credit for being a tough backroom deal maker, without letting it be known he’s making deals in backrooms. As he harrumphed in his statement to reporters on Sunday:

Arriving at a final product will require it to be properly submitted for the American people’s consideration through the other 92 senators from 43 states that weren’t part of this initial drafting process. In order to succeed, this process cannot be rushed or done in secret.

It will be interesting to see how Rubio reconciles so many seemingly irreconcilable interests. Meanwhile, there’s reason to wonder how much even an immigration reform deal will help him with Latino voters as long as his party is also associated with repealing Obamacare. The Los Angeles Times reports that Latinos support Obamacare by a 2-to-1 margin, and “overwhelmingly see guaranteeing healthcare as a core government responsibility."

That’s why for now, anyway, he’s putting the Tea Party over Latinos. It’s obviously more important that he be seen as an obstacle to a quick deal (especially one with a path to citizenship) than a champion of fast, decisive justice for the undocumented. In the end, if Rubio is forced to choose between his Tea Party base and Latinos entirely, watch him choose the Tea Party, because making inroads with an increasingly reliable Democratic voting bloc is going to be hard for any Republican in 2016, even if your name is Rubio.

By the way, although 2016 is a long way off, and Hillary Clinton might not run, she crushes both Rubio and Jeb Bush in their home state of Florida.

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Chuck Schumer Immigration Reform Latinos Marco Rubio Tea Party