Marco Rubio can't outrun his past: The political miscalculation that still could doom his White House hopes

Pundits are now hailing Rubio as the favorite to overtake Donald Trump. There's just one big problem

By Heather Digby Parton


Published November 13, 2015 4:35PM (EST)

  (AP/Mark J. Terrill)
(AP/Mark J. Terrill)

A lot of people were surprised when the Fox Business moderators on Tuesday night's GOP debate failed to ask Marco Rubio a question about immigration. It's not as if the topic was off limits.  The most contentious exchange of the night was between Donald Trump and John Kasich on the subject of mass deportation. Both Bush and Cruz jumped on the topic even though they weren't asked. Marco Rubio, however, played dead during the whole thing, obviously hoping that nobody would address him directly so he could avoid having to explain some horrible mistakes from a past life.

No, Rubio doesn't have any skeletons in his closet of the same variety Ben Carson claims. If he did, it would surely have been a major redemption theme in his oft-repeated story of his humble beginnings. (If Carson's popularity is any guide, it could only have helped him if he admitted to once attempting a drive-by shooting.) Actually, Rubio's youthful errors are far more damning, at least as far as Republican base voters are concerned: He was a member of the Gang of Eight, a group of Senators so villainous that they actually got together and hammered out a Comprehensive Immigration reform bill, which included -- dare I even say it -- a path to citizenship for undocumented workers.

And Rubio wasn't just a passive participant. The other members loved him so much he was charged with recruiting his fellow Republicans to the cause. This Washington Post article from last April examined his involvement with  the gang in detail:

Rubio’s parents were born in Cuba, and he spoke movingly about their experience as immigrants. But Rubio was also beloved by the very sort of small-government conservatives who had blocked immigration reform in the past. With a foot in both those worlds, Rubio held enormous leverage, even with the veteran senators.

That was clear in one meeting, described by four lobbyists in the room, where the GOP senators were being asked to agree to more “guest workers” in the bill. Without more of these temporary immigrants, the lobbyists said, some low-skill jobs would go unfilled. McCain, they said, suggested an answer. Couldn’t the children of illegal immigrants do those jobs?

Rubio, the son of immigrants, spoke up. “He says, ‘Pardon me, Senator, but I have to say that the children of those illegal immigrants will be doctors and lawyers,’ ”one lobbyist recalled. “In my mind, I was like, ‘Thank God somebody said it.’ Because nobody else could say that to McCain.” [...] “People would talk, talk, talk. And he’d say, ‘I can’t sell that.’ And that would be it,” one Democratic staffer recalled. If Rubio said that conservatives wouldn’t go for a particular idea, the group believed him.

He was the chief salesman in the conservative media as well. He went on every talk radio show and even appeared one Sunday morning on all five political shows. He went on Telemundo and Univision and made his pitch in Spanish too. But the right wing radio hosts were having none of it and they turned on him hard. He found himself in the middle of a typical conservative media conspiracy feedback loop with bogus charges that the bill contained "amnesty phones" and car subsidies and in the end he quietly voted for the bill and then dropped out of the gang forever, hoping that nobody would remember his role in it.

The mainstream media have very assiduously avoided bringing any of this up until now although it's doubtful they are trying to protect him. They just have short memories. Fox Business was nice enough not to bring up that bit of unpleasantness and none of his rivals had the presence of mind at the time to do it either. But that's all changed now. With Bush and Kasich cratering, Rubio is the desperate GOP establishment's new "it boy" -- and the right wingers, led by the conservative Sith Lord Ted Cruz, are circling.

Cruz appeared with hardocre anti-immigrant crusader Laura Ingraham on Thursday and unctuously quoted the Bible as he stuck the shiv in Rubio's back and slowly twisted it:

"My reaction in all of politics is, ‘talk is cheap,’ that you know where someone is based on their actions. As scripture says, ‘You shall know them by their fruits.’ We had an epic battle, in Congress, just a couple years ago - we’re not talking about ten, twenty years ago, this was just a couple years ago - on the question of amnesty. And, the argument that we need to secure the border first was an argument I was making over and over again, it was an argument that you were making over and over again, it was an argument Jeff Sessions was making over and over again. And, all the folks on the other side dismissed it, said we were wrong-headed and anti-immigrant for believing we should actually secure the borders. I have a deep and genuine disagreement with that view, so I’ve got to say, as a voter, when politicians saying the exact opposite of what they’ve done in office, I treat that with a pretty healthy degree of skepticism."

Rubio's team had obviously been preparing for this attack for some time and had at the ready an argument designed to make it look as though it was Cruz who had been a squish on immigration compared to him:

"Ted is a supporter of legalizing people that are in this country illegally. In fact, when the Senate bill was proposed, he proposed legalizing people that were here illegally. He proposed giving them work permits. He's also supported a massive expansion of the green cards. He supported a massive expansion of the H-1B program, a 500% increase. So, if you look at it, I don't think our positions are dramatically different. I do believe that we have to deal with immigration reform in a serious way, and it begins by proving to people that illegal immigration is under control."

Cruz then explained to National Review that he and others had been offering amendments reflecting those policies as a legislative strategy in the hope that Republicans would vote for them and they'd end up being poison pills for Senate Democrats, thus sinking the bill. It didn't work -- the Gang of 8 Republicans, including Rubio, refused to break ranks and allow amendments until the very end when they agreed to add more border agents and the bill finally passed.

Rubio supporters point out that Cruz did believe at one time that there should be more visas for skilled workers and some kind of path to legalization. And there's no doubt he's become more dogmatically anti-immigrant in recent years. But if Marco Rubio's argument to the rabid GOP base is that Ted Cruz is just as bad on immigration as he is, it's unlikely to be very persuasive. Cruz has a lot of problems but being insufficiently right wing isn't one of them. It's hard to see how that helps Rubio in any case.

But that doesn't seem to be the game Rubio is playing. Just as his verbal style is to answer tough questions from the press with a machine gun salvo of stump speech rhetoric delivered with rapid fire talking points, Rubio and his team are clearly prepared to respond to attacks from his rivals on known vulnerabilities (such as his personal financial scandals and his history with the Gang of Eight) with a flurry of documents and a barrage of facts. (Back in the day we would call this dazzling them with B.S.)

It's a standard damage control technique which seems to work well on gullible journalists but is unlikely to placate the hardcore right which is already very suspicious of him. Indeed, Rubio may have done something more damaging to his cause than he realizes. He may have just waved Cruz into the so-called establishment lane. Social media was all atwitter last night with talk of the Texas Senator being a more savvy politician than he's been given credit for. It's doubtful that was the Rubio campaign's intention.

Stay tuned. Marco and Ted's excellent adventure is just beginning.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Donald Trump Elections 2016 Gop Debate Gop Primary Immigration Reform Marco Rubio Ted Cruz