After the 2012 election, Marco Rubio tried to craft himself as the leader of a pro-immigration-reform Republican Party. That effort has capsized, pulling Rubio’s standing with conservatives down along with it. Now Rubio is refashioning himself as the leader of a restrictionist Republican Party. The new Rubio can be seen talking tough with conservative publications like the Washington Examiner and Breitbart, and wooing right-wing audiences in South Carolina. The newest iteration of Rubio is the opposite of the figure he and party leaders envisioned last year. The transformation ought to terrify them.
The party’s post-election report, analyzing the increasingly solid Democratic loyalties of increasingly numerous Latino voters, conceived of its problem as a substantive issue intertwined with an optical one. The substantive problem was that the GOP was locked into restrictionist policy that so alienated Latino voters it made them unreachable on any other message. The report, and Rubio, hoped that passing immigration reform in 2013, while painful and divisive, would rip off the Band-Aid, settle the immigration issue, and move it off the front of the political agenda. The opposite has happened, and Republican candidates like Rubio are once again being forced to demonstrate their hard-line bona fides.
Then there is the optical problem, which can be summarized as a primary season of endless presidential debates in which moderators and candidates goaded each other into endorsing “self-deportation” and electrified fences. (If you’ve already forgotten, Mitt Romney attacked Rick Perry for having a tiny degree of compassion for immigrant children.) Republican leaders also proposed to resolve this problem by controlling and limiting their televised debates.
But the optical response is crumbling, too, in the face of a brilliant media strategy by the Dreamers. The Dreamers are undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. Since their parents decided to bring them, and since they grew up in the United States, deporting them to a foreign country would be unjust and cruel. The Dreamers have a simple media strategy: They publicly question Republican leaders wherever they appear, asking them to straightforwardly explain why they propose to have them deported. The confrontations are powerful and immensely awkward for their subjects. Rand Paul fled in terror; Paul Ryan awkwardly ignored the question. Rubio, speaking in South Carolina, opted for direct confrontation. The video, via Greg Sargent, is in some ways even worse:
The result of this encounter thrilled conservatives. The crowd booed the Dreamers. An angry 73-year-old audience member “stalked them out of the building, clutching his cane as if it were a baseball bat.” (The cane is the historic weapon of choice for South Carolina reactionaries.) Breitbart News exulted that Rubio had executed “a ‘Sister Souljah’-type moment.”
The analogy is revealing. Sister Souljah is a hip-hop artist who mused in 1992, “If Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” When Bill Clinton denounced her, it was taken as an emblem of his willingness to confront extreme elements of his own political base. Of course, the Dreamers are not an extremist element of the Republican base. Rubio’s confrontation with them is the opposite of a Sister Souljah moment, unless you refashion the metaphor in racial rather than ideological terms, so that Rubio was denouncing his own — i.e., Latino — kind. Neither interpretation bodes especially well for Rubio’s general election profile.
Of course, the 2016 campaign has hardly begun. (Though begun it has.) The trouble for Republicans is that the political theater created by the Dreamers is not going to stop. They can try their best to control officially sanctioned media debates, but the Dreamers are staging debates without permission, endlessly highlighting the cruelty of the Republican stance. It is a strategy for which the Republicans so far have no answer. The symbolic denouement of Rubio’s immigration debacle may well be an angry old man brandishing his cane at young Dreamers.