GOP xenophobia will doom Marco Rubio: Why his 2016 candidacy will probably go up in flames

Rubio must walk a tightrope that no GOP candidate has successfully walked before

Published April 14, 2015 7:27PM (EDT)

Marco Rubio                               (AP/Susan Walsh)
Marco Rubio (AP/Susan Walsh)

Despite the fact that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign hasn’t even been around long enough for the Internet to reach a consensus about her new logo, the media class’s attention has already shifted to the nascent White House bid of Sen. Marco Rubio, the 43-year-old Republican from Florida. On Monday, Rubio delivered a speech officially announcing his candidacy, one in which the former Tea Party darling tried to present himself as a youthful and fresh politician who’s ready to move the U.S. into the 21st century. As my colleague Simon Maloy has already explained, this is nonsense: Rubio’s policy views are basically indistinguishable from what we’ve heard from Republicans since at least the 1980s.

If we keep in mind the ideological and demographic homogeneity of today’s GOP, we shouldn’t be surprised that Rubio, despite being Cuban-American and relatively young, is a generic Republican. If he were otherwise, he’d have no shot at winning his party’s nomination — and probably wouldn’t be in the Senate. But although a Rubio administration would likely be equivalent to a third term from George W. Bush (Rubio’s campaign slogan, for example, shares a name with a neoconservative think tank that helped send the U.S. back into Iraq), there’s something genuinely new about a Rubio candidacy. Because for the first time in the Tea Party era, we’re going to find out how much heresy regarding immigration policy the GOP base is willing to take.

But before we get into the challenge facing Rubio, and why I don’t think he’s going to be able to overcome it, let’s review his topsy-turvy record on immigration. As Fusion’s Brett LoGiurato delineates here, the first-term senator has tried to navigate the choppy waters of the GOP’s internal immigration politics by having it both ways. When he first showed up in Washington, Rubio was pro-reform — he even helped craft and shepherd a major bill through the Senate in 2013. Immigration was going to be the one big issue where he broke from the GOP base, proved his reasonableness and independence, and staked his claim as the frontrunner for 2016. But then Republicans in the House of Representatives stepped in; and I bet you can guess what happened next.

Speaker of the House John Boehner wanted to see a major reform pass, just to take the issue away from Democrats. But the Tea Party bloc in the House — which was even more powerful in 2013 than it is today, and which is militantly opposed to any comprehensive immigration policy that isn’t mass-deportation — made sure Rubio’s bill was DOA. So Rubio did what any motivated careerist would do: he disowned the bill and spent the next year or so talking about the importance of “securing” the country’s southern border. Now, however, he wants credit again for the bill that didn’t pass, the one he’s spent so much time pretending to regret.

That’s the history Rubio will be lugging around with him on the campaign trail, and it’s the main reason Tea Partyers, who are more fanatically anti-immigration than most pundits realize, look at him now with skepticism. Yet although the conventional wisdom sees Rubio’s former (or is it future?) immigration views as his biggest stumbling block, Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein sees it differently. Citing the example of Mitt Romney — who signed an early version of Obamacare into law as governor of Massachusetts, but won the GOP’s presidential nomination all the same — Bernstein argues that immigration is a “symbolic issue.” Republican voters see it it through a tribalist lens, he says; policy specifics don’t really matter. All Rubio needs to do is persuade Tea Partyers that “he is one of them.”

If Rubio can make like Romney and “flatter” the GOP base into believing he sees them as “the good guys, regardless of any minor disagreement on the legislation,” Bernstein writes, he’ll be fine. What he can’t do, though, is what former Texas Gov. Rick Perry did in 2012, when he said that those who were more anti-immigrant than he had “no heart.” That remark made conservatives uncomfortable, because it suggested Perry might agree with those who believe the GOP base lacks empathy — or, even worse, favors deportation because of retrograde views on race. Romney’s record may have been to the left of Perry’s in almost every respect; but the base accepted him, because he accepted the base.

In many respects, I agree with Bernstein. Yet when he conflates the politics of health care and immigration, I think he goes astray. Obviously, there’s almost no major issue in American politics that doesn’t have at least something to do with race. But the influence of ethno-nationalism (which is an academic, euphemistic way to say racism) is especially prominent when it comes to immigration reform; and as much as Tea Partyers will wail and gnash their teeth if you mention it, the reality is that Rubio’s Latino heritage makes it harder for him to thread this needle than it is for other GOP candidates. To pretend otherwise would be to acquiesce to the Republican version of political correctness.

Jeb Bush, for example, gets flack from conservatives for describing immigrating illegally into the United State as “an act of love.” But Bush is a white guy — a very white guy — and he can make up for this unfortunate slip of decency by asserting his tribal bona fides in other ways. Rubio, on the other hand, has a margin for error that is considerably smaller, which is one of the reasons why he’s made a point of chastising undocumented immigrations. At the same time, if Rubio overdoes it, he’ll destroy whatever theoretical appeal he holds for Latino-American voters — and his electability is a central part of the argument for his candidacy. This would be a difficult tightrope to walk even without his opponents attacking him in television ads and debates.

Bernstein may still be right, of course, and Rubio may be able to overcome his immigration problems and win the nomination. No candidate is perfect. But though the Romney-Obamacare example is superficially appealing, it’s probably not going to be much of a guide for following the GOP’s 2016 primary. In this respect, if no others, Rubio will be doing something we haven’t already seen.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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