Friday morning, at the CPAC convention, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) told an audience that he had learned that his previous support for immigration reform was a mistake. Speaking before the staunchly conservative crowd, Rubio, who supported a 2013 bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill, attempted to recast himself as a “secure the border first” anti-immigration hardliner.
The political shape-shifter, once a Tea Party favorite, has seen his presidential stock fall dramatically within the GOP. While his awkward water gulp, during his State of the Union rebuttal, may be Americans most familiar image of the Florida Senator, it was his support for immigration reform that lowered his popularity with Republican voters. Last year, Rubio finished a disappointing 7th place in the CPAC presidential straw poll. Many commentators attributed his dismal showing to a backlash from the base, punishing him for his support for immigration reform.
At this year’s conference, Rubio apologized for his past support and pivoted to the hardliner position. Rubio stated:
You have 10 or 12 million people in this country, many of whom have lived here for longer than a decade, have not otherwise violated our law other than immigration laws, I get all that. But what I’ve learned is you can’t even have a conversation about that until people believe and know, not just believe, but it’s proven to them, that future illegal immigration will be controlled.
You can’t just tell people you’re going to secure the border, we’re going to do E-Verify. You have to do that, they have to see it, they have to see it working, and then they’re going to have a reasonable conversation with you about the other parts, but they’re not going to even want to talk about that until that’s done first. And what’s happened over the last two years, the migratory crisis this summer, the two executive orders, that’s even more true than it’s been.
Senator Rubio’s opportunistic attempt to reinvent himself as being “tough on immigration” is pretty transparent. Understandably, the Florida Senator is desperately trying to appeal to conservatives to save his faltering, presumed presidential campaign. A PPP poll released February 24 found Marco Rubio tied for last place with Texas Governor Rick Perry in a field of nine presidential contenders. Just three percent of Republican voters ranked Rubio as their first choice for President.
Rubio’s gambit, however, is likely to do his candidacy more harm than good. Hardcore anti-immigration zealots are not likely to back Rubio, simply for walking back his previous support for immigration reform. They will prefer a candidate who has always stood firm against immigration reform. In addition, Rubio’s attempt to project strength by transforming into an anti-immigration hardliner, may actually project weakness instead.
A politician who too frequently shifts his political position, in order to placate a certain constituency, runs the risk of being dismissed as an unprincipled flip-flopper. Marco Rubio appears to be following the Mitt Romney and John Kerry playbook of trying to appear to be all things to all people. That strategy doesn’t have a strong track record.
The real beneficiary of Rubio’s flip flop may turn out to be former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL). Rubio’s moribund presidential campaign is likely to remain mired in single digits. His journey away from common sense support for immigration reform, may leave Jeb Bush as the only significant Republican contender left to defend a sensible approach to immigration. That is, unless, Bush himself wanders over to the dark side, by trying too hard to appeal to xenophobic right-wing conservative primary voters.
Given the strength of the Tea Party’s assault on reason within the GOP universe, Bush may follow Rubio into the abyss. But for now, he remains the least anti-immigrant candidate in the Republican field. While that position may not be popular with GOP voters, it is the only position that is tenable in a general election. Rubio’s presidential hopes, on the other hand, are now doomed. He just threw away the one and only issue he had going for him. Now that he no longer publicly supports immigration reform, there is nothing to distinguish himself from the other Tea Party candidates in the race, except that unlike some of them, he has no traction going forward.