Marco Rubio's cynical gambit: Why his slippery stance on immigration is a win-win

GOPer talks out of both sides of his mouth concerning reform . Here's why he's doing it — and why it might work

Published April 23, 2015 7:08PM (EDT)

  (AP/Alan Diaz)
(AP/Alan Diaz)

Marco Rubio, the GOP senator hoping to win the White House by combining the economic views of Art Laffer with the sexual politics of Ross Douthat and the foreign policy acumen of Charles Krauthammer, is having a good month.

First there was his presidential campaign’s official launch, which went off without any clear hiccups and was well-received by the political press. Despite announcing his candidacy with a speech that was substantively unoriginal, historically challenged and rhetorically flaccid, Rubio garnered mostly positive reviews. He’s very youthful and charismatic, in case you hadn’t noticed.

Second came Thursday’s news. Not only did a poll from Quinnipiac University show Rubio at the front of the long line of Republican presidential candidates, but a report from Politico also said he was about to secure the backing of Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who wants to preemptively nuke Iran and is willing to spend his tens of billions in the process.

As if all that wasn’t fortune enough, Thursday also saw BuzzFeed post an article on how Rubio was faring behind closed doors with some of the Republican Party’s donor kings. There, too, the news was all good. Rubio, according to BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins, had these masters of the universe “swooning” over assurances that his giving up on immigration reform was a mere tactical move. Just a little pandering to get the Tea Party off his back.

But the Iowa caucus isn’t until February of next year, and Rubio has enough buddies in the .01 percent to ensure his campaign wants for nothing, even if Adelson decides to, shall we say, “invest” in someone else. So it’s the last tidbit, the one about how Rubio discusses policy in quiet rooms, that interests me the most. Because while I’m uncertain of Rubio’s chances to win the nomination, I am positive that the immigration two-step BuzzFeed describes will serve him well (politically and financially) well into the future.

Here’s what Rubio’s up to, as I understand it. After putting together a big, bipartisan and comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013 — which passed the Senate only to die ignominiously in the House — Rubio has spent more than a year disowning his sole legislative accomplishment and urging heartbroken Tea Partiers to forgive him for his sins. His dalliance with “amnesty” didn’t mean anything; he promises he’ll “secure the border” first, if only they’ll give him the chance and take him back.

The whole incident was embarrassing and led to his being “unceremoniously defenestrated,” as BuzzFeed puts it, from the rarefied air of the 2016 elite. But now there’s reason to wonder if what looked like a blunder was really part of a larger scheme — or at least that’s what Rubio wants donors (and the BuzzFeed-reading political class) to think. Rubio’s onetime support of comprehensive reform, BuzzFeed reports, “has proved to be a substantial draw within the GOP money crowd."

This isn’t a simple happy coincidence, either. Republican fundraisers told BuzzFeed of being “surprised” to find Rubio so “enthusiastic” about discussing his work on immigration. Granted, he may evince a “strong reluctance” to talk about reform “in public.” But Rubio’s “chief concern” at the moment, BuzzFeed reports, is “filling the campaign war chest.” And that demands Rubio signal to GOP donors, who mainly want the next president to deregulate and cut their taxes, that he interprets the 2012 results the same way they do: as proof that an anti-immigrant Republican will never be president.

In essence, Rubio is doing what Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein has recommended. Instead of getting into the details of immigration policy, the would-be president is simply focused on convincing both the high and the low of the GOP that he is one of them. To the Tea Party, he talks ad nauseam about securing the border and his support for all manner of preconditions to reform that Democrats will (rightly) never accept. To donors, meanwhile, he eschews talk of culture and ideology and tries to prove he’s got the pragmatic streak that victory in 2016 will require.

It’s a pretty nice gig Rubio’s made for himself, if you stop and think about it. As long as immigration reform has no real chance of passing through Congress, he can get the credit for trying while not having to deal with the consequences of success. If he wins the nomination, he can pull an Etch A Sketch on Tea Party voters, who’ll feel they have no choice with Hillary Clinton as the other option.

And if he doesn’t? Well, he’s still got the goodwill of the GOP’s donors, who will blame a 2016 defeat on the Tea Party. Then he can bide his time collecting a paycheck from Fox News while getting ready for 2020 — and the chance to do it all over again .

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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