Point and shoot.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Rubio's Racking Up Enemies

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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It looked, until today, that Marco Rubio would be subjected to a pincer maneuver by Donald Trump and Jeb Bush.  Trump wants to bruise Rubio in part because the Florida senator is on the rise, and in part because Trump knocks people down just because he can. Bush wants to remove Rubio from the presidential field in particular because Rubio is getting traction in inverse proportion to the degree that Bush is losing it.

Now, in what can only be an unpleasant development for Rubio, Ted Cruz has decided to make it a three-pronged attack. A super-PAC supporting the Texas senator's presidential ambitions launched a radio ad in Iowa on Friday attacking Rubio for a lack of accomplishments except one: "his gang of eight amnesty bill."

Rubio, whose talent for the slippery getaway is on par with Trump's for shoves from atop the jungle gym, is desperately trying to avoid being pinned down on immigration. Trump, in particular, has been pushing Rubio to define his nebulous, shifty positions. In the shorthand of conservative immigration restrictionists, Rubio was against "amnesty" before he sponsored a Senate bill providing a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. When that plan went down in the House, a victim of conservative outrage, Rubio slipped back through the battle lines to take shelter on the amnesty opponents' side. It is in no one's interest, save Rubio's, for him to find safe refuge there.

Trump has already had success smoking out Rubio, as Bloomberg's Sahil Kapur reported this week:

Rubio also toughened his position on immigration, making clear for the first time he'd end President Barack Obama's program to shield young undocumented "Dreamers" from deportation by stopping new enrollments. Obama's program is designed to temporarily protect people who were brought to the U.S. by their parents when they were children.

The Cruz super-PAC's radio salvo, which may or may not be welcome by Cruz's campaign, is no doubt music to Bush's ears, since his resurgence is in all likelihood dependent on Rubio's weakening. “He’ll go through the wringer, just like I’m going through it, and he’ll have to defend himself,” Bush told the Wall Street Journal. “There’ll be scrutiny on him, just as there should be for everybody.”

Rubio could find himself under siege very quickly, if Bush -- or, more likely, the super-PAC supporting him -- picks up the "do nothing" theme of Cruz's attack and if Trump zeroes in on the cleaner, more deadly shot: that immigration restrictionists can't trust the wavering Rubio.

Rubio may be the only candidate in the field who could provoke an attack from Cruz, Bush and Trump. Bush and the others are, after all, competing to capture entirely different voting blocs. Rubio is sufficiently malleable (and talented) to be a threat to compete against all three. Yet as Scott Walker found, in attempting a run similar to Rubio's, it's easy to be overwhelmed and discarded in a large field that has yet to find its indispensable man.

If Rubio fails to commit irrevocably to the Trump-Cruz "no amnesty" position, he will have serious troubles with the Republicans' restrictionist base. If he capitulates fully to the restrictionists to prove his faithfulness, he'll have little room to maneuver in a general election, when Hispanic and Asian voters will be looking for clear signs of inclusiveness from whatever Republican nominee emerges from an ugly primary.

In effect, Trump and Cruz are driving Rubio to be as unacceptable to a general electorate as they are likely to be themselves. That doesn't mean Bush, who has mostly stuck to his lonely support for immigration reform, will survive the primary. But it would be a delightful irony if it did.  

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:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net