(AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Marco Rubio's Hispanic debacle: How Hillary Clinton just made life hell for the GOP's "transformational" candidate

This is the savvy contender Democrats should fear? Please


Simon Maloy
May 8, 2015 9:47PM (UTC)

Hillary Clinton went big on immigration this week. Speaking in Nevada, the Democratic candidate for president laid out a vision for immigration reform that embraces and goes beyond what President Obama has managed to accomplish via executive action. She also used the opportunity to swipe at the Republicans in the 2016 mix, calling them out for opposing efforts to pass immigration legislation and offering chintzy alternatives to real reform. “Make no mistake,” she said, “today not a single Republican candidate, announced or potential, is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship. Not one. When they talk about ‘legal status,’ that’s code for ‘second-class status.’”

Clinton’s message came as something of a welcome surprise to immigration activists and liberal voters who remembered the Hillary Clinton of 2007 who hemmed, hawed, and dodged her way around issues of undocumented immigration. She also seems to have tripped up a few of the same Republicans candidates she criticized. The Washington Post noted the “relatively subdued” reaction to Clinton’s immigration comments from Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, both of whom are viewed as more “moderate” on immigration issues and both of whom have an eye on eating into the Democrats’ advantage with Latino voters. Other potential candidates were not so taciturn: Scott Walker lashed out at Clinton for her “full embrace of amnesty” and for putting herself “above the law,” while Lindsey Graham called her speech “a sign of her weakness.”

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The question raised by the Republicans’ divergent responses is whether Hillary has succeeded in turning an already bad issue for the GOP into something even worse. Slate’s Jamelle Bouie argues that Hillary “changed the game” by offering a clear and unmistakable contrast “between an expansive agenda of inclusion from the Democrats, and a more limited, hesitant approach from Republicans.” The Post quoted one New Hampshire Republican saying that “Republicans’ intransigence has created an obvious opportunity for Hillary to rip off our arms and beat us with the bloody ends,” which would seem to indicate that at least some people within the party are freaking out.

But the American Prospect’s Paul Waldman thinks that the freak-out may be premature, especially if the party ends up nominating Rubio, who is Latino himself and is more politically savvy than your average Republican when it comes to immigration:

But consider that the position Republicans are offering on immigration is a sequence of policy moves, and when two candidates describe the same sequence it can sound very different, even if the substance is essentially the same. When Scott Walker describes it, it sounds a lot like "We need to crack down, secure the border, get tough on those no-good illegals. And yeah, when that's done we'll get around to making a path to citizenship, but did I mention how tough we're going to be?" When Marco Rubio describes it (and particularly as he would describe it if he's past the Republican primary and into the general election), it sounds more like, "First we'll secure the border, and then after that's taken care of we'll bring hard-working people out of the shadows and set them on a path to citizenship so they can be part of our big American community."

I tend to think this gives Rubio a bit too much credit. Rubio, of course, was a leading supporter of comprehensive immigration reform legislation in 2013. When that legislation met (ultimately intractable) resistance from conservatives, Rubio disavowed his own bill, blamed its failure on President Obama’s executive actions, and came around to the “border security first” position of most of the rest of his party. And while Rubio may be able to articulate that position better than some of his colleagues, he’ll still have to reckon with the fact that he walked away from the leadership role he took on a piece of legislation that Hispanic voters strongly backed. While conservatives might like to hear that it was all Obama’s fault, I suspect that Hispanic voters will be less susceptible to that message. And, for what it’s worth, back when he supported comprehensive reform, Rubio was pulling down only 28 percent of the Hispanic vote in a hypothetical 2016 scenario. The latest polling still shows Rubio trailing Clinton badly among Hispanics.

When it comes to Rubio’s actual policy, he’s working on a delicate balancing act as he tries to appeal to anti-“amnesty” conservative voters without alienating Hispanic voters, and vice versa. Hot Air’s Jazz Shaw sussed out what will likely be Rubio’s basic message as he tries to maintain this balance:

While thin on details, it still sounds to me like Rubio is attempting to edge his way toward a pathway to citizenship without saying so and inflaming the base. Assuming I’m correct, on that score I still find him to be wrong and would not support such a plan. But intentionally or not, Rubio has hit on a key feature of any congressional movement on immigration which I think will prove salable to a majority of voters. I would summarize it with one campaign phrase which is easily portable: let’s not rush into anything.

Here again I think Hillary has put him at a distinct disadvantage, at least as it pertains to Hispanic voters. In her speech, Hillary tapped into the urgency Hispanic voters feel towards passing reform after nearly a decade of false starts and legislative failures. “That’s why we can’t wait any longer, we can’t wait any longer for a path to full and equal citizenship,” she said her speech. Rubio’s message will be “hey, let’s just wait a little longer and see if we can’t lock that border down first.” He’ll be asking for patience where little exists, while Clinton will push for immediate action.

I was highly skeptical of the idea that Rubio could make real inroads among Hispanic voters before Hillary drew her line in the sand on immigration, and I think now she’s made it only more difficult for him. He may be able to speak the language and give a good speech, but there are just too many factors working against him.

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Simon Maloy

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