Marco Rubio’s scary Obama strategy

He warns the GOP that the president will legalize the undocumented with his tyrant powers -- but it could backfire

By Joan Walsh
Published August 14, 2013 2:39PM (EDT)
Marco Rubio                           (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Marco Rubio (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Sen. Marco Rubio, facing pushback from far-right Republicans to the Senate immigration reform bill, is warning that if Congress doesn’t act, President Obama could use his scary superpowers to legalize 11 million undocumented residents.

“I believe that this president is tempted, if nothing happens in Congress, to issue an executive order as he did for the DREAM Act kids a year ago, where he basically legalizes 11 million people by the sign of a pen,” Rubio told WFLA on Tuesday. “A year from now we could find ourselves with all 11 million people here legally under an executive order from the president.”

Rubio has taken a lower profile lately on immigration reform, trying to shore up his right-wing base by pushing the loony “Defund Obamacare or we’ll shutdown the government!” threat that’s increasingly unpopular with mainstream Republicans. But his new gambit tries to tap into the increasingly unhinged Obama hatred on the right, depicting a reform bill as the only way to stop a tyrannical president who is determined to legalize immigrants – most of them believed to be Democrats in waiting -- without any hike in border control.

Will it work? MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin says it might, because it’s matched by a push by immigration reform advocates to get Obama to do just that – use his executive powers to legalize at least some of the undocumented, perhaps parents of DREAM act kids who have already been granted legal status. (Some 400,000 young people have been granted temporary waivers to stay here legally.) While Obama has consistently denied he believes he should, or could, do that, Sarlin notes that he said the same thing about the DREAMers – until he issued his executive order banning their deportation a year ago.

“It’s not an empty threat,” immigration reform advocate Frank Sharry of America’s Voice told Politico. “If Republicans block reform with a path to citizenship, immigration reform activists will look at all their options, including broad executive action.”

But will the threat work on the right? Obviously there’s a large faction of the GOP that believes Obama is a tyrannical usurper who will flout the law and do anything he believes will benefit him politically. But why would they want to give in to his supposed willingness to abuse his power, rather than fight it? Immigration reform opponent Mark Krikorian is already mocking Rubio for his suggestion. “Rubio: Surrendering to Obama on immigration will yield Peace in Our Time,” he tweeted on Tuesday.

Besides, playing on fears that the lawless Obama will do anything to legalize the undocumented could also play into a major right-wing worry about the Senate bill – that it gives the executive branch a lot of latitude in implementation, and thus will let Obama ignore any provisions he doesn’t like.

So I don’t think Rubio’s gambit here will work. He’s probably onto something, trying to channel his party’s hatred of the president, but he underestimates the extent to which it prevents most of them from making rational political decisions. The guy once considered a top 2016 prospect has been hurt politically by his efforts on immigration reform – Charles Pierce calls him a “has been,” noting that Rubio overestimated his party’s desire to lose its nativist image, but “by the time he figured all of this out, the party had found Ted Cruz, who is completely nuts, but who is as Cuban as Rubio. Right now, Marco Rubio looks as relevant to Republican politics going forward as Robert Taft does.”

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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