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the national interest

How Marco Rubio Has Taken Over the Republican Party

US Republican Senator from Florida Marco Rubio speaks at the BuzzFeed Brews newsmaker event in Washington on February 5, 2013.

As recently as a few months ago, Paul Ryan — despite his nominal subordinate position to Mitt Romney on the Republican ticket — was the unassailable leader of the Republican Party. But Marco Rubio appears to have seized the mantle from Ryan. Or, at least, if Ryan is the party’s mind, Rubio is its face, the Bush to Ryan’s Cheney.

The party’s brief post-election period of questioning its direction has, for the time being, been settled in favor of what I call the Krauthammer plan. This strategy was laid out by the ubiquitous pundit in a column published a mere two days after the election. In it, Krauthammer audaciously declared that the party needed to take a dive on immigration reform, and otherwise change nothing else. There was no 47 percent problem, no one percent problem, just an immigration problem. A key portion of the Krauthammer plan involved Rubio’s elevation as party standard-bearer:

Imagine Marco Rubio advancing such a policy on the road to 2016. It would transform the landscape. He’d win the Hispanic vote. Yes, win it. A problem fixable with a single policy initiative is not structural.

This part, too, is coming to pass. Rubio’s ascent combines two essential roles. The first is as the party’s communicator. He is young, well-spoken, and handsome, able to opine about rap and wax eloquent about the struggles of immigrants. “Marco Rubio. So hot right now,” tweets John Boehner’s spokesman. Michael Grunwald’s cover story in Time, the cover of which calls Rubio “The Savior,” captures Rubio’s essential role. He provides the party with a fresh new face while retaining all the elements of its dogma save immigration. (Rubio himself has had to reverse his own previously hard-line stance.)

Just as crucial is Rubio’s role within the party. Being a climate-science-questioning, Norquist pledge-signing conservative automaton is the easy part; coaxing the party into throwing in the towel on immigration is trickier. Here is where Rubio has displayed his mastery of internal party politics. He has swept through the conservative punditocracy to sell his immigration-reform plan, which is more or less the same thing as the plans put forward by George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

My colleagues Lauren Duca and Joe Coscarelli conducted a lengthy, if not exhaustive, survey of the right-wing commentariat’s last thinking on immigration reform. The results, from Rubio’s standpoint, are truly impressive. Large pockets of resistance remain intact — Rich Lowry, Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, and Glenn Beck have all carried over their hard-line stance.

Far more numerous, though, are the conservatives willing to support reform. What stands out in the thought process of the pro-reform conservatives is the centrality of Rubio.

Rush Limbaugh gushes, "What you are doing is admirable and noteworthy.” Bill O’Reilly, who once declared that “people who hate America … want to flood the country with foreign nationals, unlimited, unlimited, to change the complexion — pardon the pun — of America,” now tells Rubio, “I like your program. I think it’s fair.”

The parade of acclaim goes on. Mark Levin:

What you are proposing – this is going to be controversial, but I am going to say it – is actually more conservative than the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli bill that my hero, my former boss, Ronald Reagan signed. I just want people to know that.

Sean Hannity:

I said this was the most interesting proposal I ever heard, because it seemed like you were really sincere about putting this to bed once and for all.

Lou Dobbs. Yes, you read that correctly. Lou Dobbs!

The idea is going to be whether the Republican Party has the ability, the capacity, the will to put [Rubio] in a position so that he can represent the party on an issue.

Rubio seems to have grasped in particular the emotional barriers involved. Republicans not only distrust immigration reform as public policy, they distrust Obama personally and can’t stand the idea of cooperating with him. Rubio has managed to get conservatives to think of cooperating with Obama on immigration reform as a kind of triumph over Obama. Never mind that Obama has favored comprehensive reform all along, and Rubio opposed it until the last few weeks. The new partisan narrative presents Obama as a foe of immigration reform and Rubio as its long-standing champion. Thus, the passage of an immigration-reform bill would represent Rubio’s partisan triumph over Obama.

Joel Pollack’s story for Breitbart.com offers what may be the most nakedly Orwellian version of this new narrative:

Obama spent eight years preventing any attempt at sensible immigration reform …

This time, Rubio was determined not to be caught flat-footed, and it is his ideas that have shaped the Senate proposals. … The quick movement in Congress may rob President Obama of an issue that has been a rhetorical foil for years.

Slightly more subtle iterations of this line have emanated from The Wall Street Journal editorial page, Michael Gerson, and Fred Barnes:

The four Republicans—Marco Rubio (Florida), Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), and John McCain and Jeff Flake (both Arizona)—are veterans of immigration reform struggles. They knew what they were doing. ..

The president’s motives are suspicious.

It is as if Rubio were a local ward heeler, and Republicans were lining up to hand him over their proxy vote. They have the vague sense of certain policy principles at stake, but they define those principles almost entirely by what Rubio is willing to accept. They believe, almost by definition, that a bill Rubio supports is supportable, and the failure of a bill must be Obama’s fault. So then finally, Rubio will be standing with his foot atop Obama’s throat, having bested him by forcing him to sign a bill fulfilling one of his longtime legislative priorities. And then … 2016!

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Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images