A huge victory for GOP's "whites-only" coalition

Immigration reform's failure didn't just sink Rubio's political ambitions, it sank the idea of a multicultural GOP

By Brian Beutler
Published October 29, 2013 11:45AM (EDT)
Marco Rubio                              (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)
Marco Rubio (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

Now and again, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., must ask himself whether the GOP's promiscuous flirtation with comprehensive immigration reform was part of an elaborate plan to trick him into sabotaging his own chances of winning the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

After last year's election, top GOP leaders including the speaker of the House and the chairman of the Republican National Committee were crystal clear that the party's big adjustment would be to broaden its appeal to Latino voters by embracing immigration reform. Rubio took them at their word, and as part of an implicit quid pro quo offered to make himself the face of the party's new commitment. He would lend the effort his ethnic heritage and conservative bona fides. In return, they wouldn't hang him out to dry. He'd help them neutralize immigration reform as a flashpoint issue on the right, they'd give him a legacy issue lasting enough to carry him to the presidency.

That oversimplifies things a bit, but it underscores the fact that Rubio's incentives were shaped in part by a belief that the party's interest in the project wasn't fleeting or feigned.

But shortly after Rubio helped marshal a comprehensive, bipartisan bill through the Senate, John Boehner effectively handed the entire House agenda to the Tea Party, and in so doing torpedoed the reform consensus, including the Senate's legislation, altogether.

Suddenly Rubio's reputation as a redemptive leader was overtaken by something much less flattering -- a turncoat who tried to swindle the GOP into supporting amnesty for self-interested reasons. The damage to Rubio's standing on the right was so severe, you'd think Boehner was working in cahoots with Ted Cruz to neuter the Texas senator's competition, except -- well, we know that's not true.

The irony is that Boehner remains the only person in all of Washington with both the power and the desire to clean up his own mess. He still says immigration reform is a key Republican priority. And if he put Rubio's bill, or another, similar bill, on the House floor it would probably pass with the help of overwhelming Democratic support.

But Boehner's overcommitted himself. He can't do that without violating his commitment to block any immigration bills that don't enjoy the support of a majority of House Republicans. So Rubio's best-laid plans are dead. This weekend, in a testament to his passage through the stages of grief, he threw his support to House GOP leaders, who want to pass piecemeal immigration bills, then limit any House-Senate negotiations to the terms of those bills. That means no pathway to citizenship, and it probably means no reforms of any kind.

Rubio, of course, blames all of this on President Obama.

My colleague Joan Walsh has written more on Rubio's decision vis-à-vis Rubio's own ambitions and his ongoing effort to rehabilitate his reputation on the right.

I want to explore what his latest move means for Boehner and the party at large.

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Any time momentum is building for anything in the House, it's worth asking if it's pointed anywhere other than the abyss of Republican incompetence. Can Boehner pass more than one or two draconian, enforcement-oriented immigration bills without help from Democrats? Will Democrats help him pass less controversial piecemeal bills if Republicans are truly foreclosing on comprehensive reform?

Now that immigration reform is in Boehner's hands, it's easy to imagine him and his conference flubbing even the modest task of passing a conservative position. Does Boehner really want the GOP's answer to the Senate's bill, including its pathway to citizenship, to be a narrow plan to militarize the border? Can he he even get that through the House? What affirmative steps can he take to distinguish the party's position on immigration from Mitt Romney's call for incentivizing immigrants to self-deport?

If Boehner can't make any progress on his own, conservative reform advocates will have one last opportunity to press him to partner with Democrats, even if it means abandoning the Hastert rule yet again.

But this is a highly optimistic scenario. The conservative reformers I spoke with on Monday don't think that's what's happening. At this point, they see it as a question of whether Democrats will sign on to help Republicans pass something truly marginal or whether nothing will pass at all.

The result in either case will be the consequence of Boehner's decision to let conservative hard-liners kill comprehensive reform. Some of these members are motivated more by spite than by the sum of their concern for the national welfare, the interests of their constituents, and their own partisan allegiances. Others oppose reform more earnestly. But together they comprise a faction that's pulling the Republican Party in a whites-only direction. Rubio's latest move suggests they've won the tug of war.

Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at bbeutler@salon.com and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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Editor's Picks Immigration Immigration Reform John Boehner Marco Rubio Reince Priebus Rnc Ted Cruz