Marco Rubio's existential flip-flop

Marco Rubio was once the GOP's great hope for reversing its demographic doom -- now he's groveling to the Tea Party

Published August 27, 2014 11:44AM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)
(Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

Marco Rubio has learned his lesson. The Florida Republican indicated as much in a letter he sent to President Obama yesterday, describing in highly sanitized terms everything he took away from his participation in last summer’s bipartisan push for immigration reform. “After the experience of the last 18 months,” Rubio wrote, “I have become convinced that there is no realistic path forward on comprehensive immigration reform for the foreseeable future. Instead, it is clear to me now that the only approach that has any chance of success is one that addresses our immigration problems in a series of sequential pieces of legislation.”

Why has Rubio changed his stance on immigration reform? Because he, like pretty much every other Republican who realized the party is staring down demographic oblivion, made the subsequent realization that success in Republican politics is still contingent upon hostility toward immigrants. Rubio, however, is unique among Republicans in that he figured this out before Mitt Romney got clobbered among Latino voters in 2012, and he has an actual policy record that demonstrates (relative) moderation when it comes to immigration reform. Now he has to distance himself from all that poisonous moderation to win back the hearts and … well, the hearts of the Tea Party set.

That’s why Rubio, appearing at a fundraiser in South Carolina on Monday, got into it with some immigration activists who showed up to protest his changing attitudes on immigration reform. As CNN’s Peter Hamby reported, Rubio’s speech was interrupted “by a group of protestors -- self-identified Dreamers, young immigrants brought to the country illegally as minors -- who loudly heckled the senator for abandoning last year's sweeping immigration package when it was met with harsh resistance on the right.” These confrontations have become something of a regular occurrence ever since the House GOP voted to end President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a sort of Dream Act-lite which shields young immigrants from deportation.

As the protesters were being escorted out, Rubio threw a few parting jabs their way:

"We are a sovereign country that deserves to have immigration laws," Rubio said. "You're doing harm to your own cause because you don't have a right to illegally immigrate to the United States."

Well, woof, Mr. Rubio. According to Hamby, the protesters were trailed by a “73-year old Army veteran” who “angrily stalked them out of the building, clutching his cane as if it were a baseball bat.”

So here we have Marco Rubio scolding some young people who were brought into the country as kids for their unlawful mockery of our nation’s precious sovereignty. Contrast this Marco Rubio with the Marco Rubio of early 2012, who proposed his own version of the Dream Act and was cautiously optimistic that Republicans would get behind it. “What we want to do is give these kids a chance to get right what their parents got wrong,” Rubio said at the time, “but not do it in a way that incentivizes people to do this in the future, and doesn't undermine our legacy as a nation of laws.”

And in case you’re curious why Rubio broke out the tough talk, here’s your answer (again, from Hamby):

For an ambitious Republican looking to prove his conservative bona fides and rub out the stain of working with Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid, the interruption was something of a gift. A plugged-in Republican operative turned to a reporter and observed dryly, "I couldn't think of a better way to make Rubio look good in South Carolina."

Getting angry at immigrants sure is great politics when you’re trying to win over the terrified, elderly, white conservatives of South Carolina who will have an extraordinarily large amount of influence when selecting the next Republican presidential nominee.

And that’s obviously Rubio’s endgame here. Back in 2012, he was heralded as the Republican Party’s savior-in-waiting, the conservative Tea Party darling who could appeal to Hispanic voters in ways that John McCain and Mitt “Self-Deportation” Romney couldn’t. “This is indisputably Rubio’s moment,” Politico wrote just a few days after Romney’s defeat, “and how the 41-year-old senator and the most prominent Latino in national politics today carries his party’s demographic burden will define not only his own future — but the future of the Republican Party.”

Rubio tried the bipartisan problem-solver routine, but he underestimated the intransigence of House Republicans. Along the way he turned himself into a RINO among conservative activists who won’t tolerate compromise with Democrats and whose idea of immigration reform is having the National Guard stand shoulder-to-shoulder along the border with Mexico. So now he’s going in the same direction as Ted Cruz and blaming the influx of undocumented immigrant children at the southern border on Obama’s deferred action program. Rubio wrote in his letter to Obama: “Your pursuit of unilateral action in the midst of an election year, without any concern for the policy ramifications, has played a significant role in the humanitarian and security crisis that has been occurring on our border with Mexico.”

It’s all very sad, really. Rubio was positioned to be the Republican who could steer the GOP away from its rapidly approaching demographic cliff, but he was sabotaged by his own party. And now he’s so desperate to get back in the game that he’s throwing principle out the window and pandering to the same people who made him look like such a fool.

By Simon Maloy

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