Hard to please.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Rubio's Immigration Magic Trick

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Marco Rubio is a crafty, talented 44-year-old politician who is in serious danger of splitting his pants. More than anyone else in the Republican presidential primary, Rubio is trying to straddle his party's most visible divide, presenting himself as a solid choice for the corporate elite and as a tribune of the (very angry) people who don't have much use for corporate elitists. As a Fortune columnist wrote, Rubio has "a chameleon-like ability to sound like an outsider even when his policy positions match those of the party establishment."

The Florida senator has yet to break through to the top tier of candidates. Both the RealClearPolitics and Huffpollster polling averages show Rubio in third place nationally, but at around 9 percent of the primary vote he is closer to cellar dwellers Chris Christie and Lindsey Graham than he is to soaring novices Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

Even so, there is evidence that Rubio's straddle could work. Jeb Bush, the gold-plated establishment offering, is faltering. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, the other would-be hedge candidate, has been driven from the race. Rubio enjoys high favorable/unfavorable ratios, which suggest a potential to rise. (An August Quinnipiac poll showed Rubio with an otherworldly 72/3 rating among Republicans.)

QuickTake Swerving Path to Citizenship

But if straddling were easy, more candidates would succeed at it. And Rubio's greatest stretch -- immigration -- is his riskiest. 

Rubio helped shepherd comprehensive immigration reform through the Senate in 2013. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The party was reeling from President Barack Obama's re-election, and a party "autopsy" of the defeat practically begged legislators to use an immigration fix to get right with Hispanic and Asian voters, who supported Obama by 2-to-1 margins.

Rubio clearly hoped to be the Republican Moses, leading a new wave of immigrant voters into the party. But the Republican base revolted, and House Republicans stomped on reform, tentatively at first, then with increasing gusto. By the time Trump launched his campaign in June with a vitriolic broadside against Mexicans, Rubio had been working for months to cross the border back to the nativist side of the party. Trump's subsequent success with Republican voters merely underscored the necessity.

At a time when many whites are anxious about the approach of a nonwhite majority, the political value of championing immigration in a Republican primary can appear microscopically small (ask Bush). In a 2013 poll published by the Center for American Progress, 57 percent of Republicans expressed concern that rising diversity would lead to rising discrimination against whites. In the same poll, 80 percent of Republicans expressed concern that it would place too many demands on public services. These are not, generally speaking, Americans desperate to welcome 11 million mostly Hispanic illegal immigrants into the U.S. electorate.

The predictable result, as reported by Bloomberg Politics:

Pressed by conservative host Sean Hannity during a Monday night interview on Fox News, the Florida senator said he's open to a path to citizenship for people in the U.S. illegally, but only a decade or more after passage of bills to secure the border and modernize the legal immigration system.

As anyone who has followed the immigration debate knows, in the minds of many immigration restrictionists the border is a loose and dangerous phantasm that will never be secure. Rubio was basically saying the path to citizenship is a dead end.

Oh, and forget about legalization, too. “People need to see and honestly believe that the problem is not getting worse, that it’s getting better," he told the Guardian. "And until we are achieving that, I don’t think we’re going to have the political support that we need to move forward on the other pieces of it.”

Restrictionists are not convinced of Rubio's turnaround, or forgiving of his pro-immigration transgressions. Typical headlines:

Hotair: Rubio raking in big bucks from rich pro-amnesty Republicans by touting his "immigration record" behind closed doors.

Breitbart: Rubio Abandons GOP Position, Caves to Obama Executive Amnesty

Rubio's pollster, Whit Ayers, won't soothe their worries. Ayers argues that Republicans must improve their standing among minorities to remain competitive in presidential politics. He is one of the party's leading proponents of broadening the tent.

While he has failed to win over the restrictionist right, Rubio is considered a traitor by his former allies. "His hard line on immigration, increasingly unmasked, is going to be hung around his neck should he make it to the general election," said Frank Sharry, a prominent pro-immigration advocate. "He reeks of ambition and shows little evidence of character."

Back in July, when Rubio was already in full flight from his previous stance on immigration, Senator John McCain, a backer of immigration reform, likened him to a politician licking his finger and holding it to the wind. “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows," McCain told the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza.

In an interview with Bloomberg Politics, Mike Murphy, who runs the super-PAC supporting Bush's candidacy, all but announced his intention to show the "vulnerable" side of Rubio. In the vernacular of 30-second attack ads, Rubio's turnabout on immigration is a serious character issue.

Rubio is poised to be the corporate Republican fallback in case Bush's candidacy fades. Murphy, who is sitting atop the largest single advertising budget in American politics right now, would like to make sure Rubio never gets that opportunity.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net