A specter has haunted Senator Marco Rubio’s political career since 2013: his high-profile membership in the so-called Gang of Eight. The bipartisan group of senators produced a comprehensive immigration reform bill that was rejected by the House almost immediately and was ultimately demonized by conservatives everywhere.
It wasn’t the first time Rubio had tried to lead his party out of the wilderness toward an immigration stance that was less repellent to his fellow Latinos. In 2012 he proposed an alternative to the DREAM Act that gave students limited relief without a real path to citizenship. It was widely expected to become a vehicle whereby GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney could mitigate the anti-immigrant image he had projected with his encouragement of “self-deportation” by the undocumented. But then Barack Obama preempted both Rubio’s proposal and Romney’s planned “pivot” with the DACA initiative that remains central to the immigration debate to this day.
After that election, the prevailing wisdom in GOP circles — articulated most forcefully in the famous “autopsy report” the RNC released, examining ways for Republicans to achieve a majority — was that the party needed to embrace comprehensive immigration reform or risk perpetual defeat at the hands of Latino voters. The former tea party darling Rubio seemed the ideal leader for such an effort. But it was all a major miscalculation by the RNC and Rubio alike, as this assessment in late 2015 showed:
[A]s polls have shown, support for an active policy of deportation by law enforcement has steadily gained ground, becoming a clear majority position among self-identified Republicans by mid-2014….
The key thing to realize is that a hard-core pro-deportation position is now a mainstream Republican position, and certainly more popular than “amnesty.”
Rubio spent a lot of time during his 2016 presidential campaign backtracking from, and all but apologizing for, his earlier support for comprehensive reform. During GOP candidate debates, Rubio tried to pretend that his flip-flop was attributable to the emergence of terrorist activity that made relatively liberal immigration policies problematic. Ted Cruz called him on it instantly:
[R]adical Islamic terrorism was not invented 24 months ago; 24 months ago, we had Al Qaida. We had Boko Haram. We had Hamas. We had Hezbollah. We had Iran putting operatives in South America and Central America. It’s the reason why I stood with Jeff Sessions and Steve King and led the fight to stop the Gang of Eight amnesty bill, because it was clear then, like it’s clear now, that border security is national security.
In the end Rubio — or “L’il Marco” as he called him — was the perfect foil for Donald Trump’s claims that Establishment Republicans couldn’t be trusted to defend the borders. But Rubio is only 46, and was just reelected to another term in the Senate. So he has time to keep working on that immigration policy résumé to remove the horrid tattoo of the Gang of Eight from his body of work. And he continues doing so today by distancing himself from a similar “gang” led by Dick Durbin and Lindsey Graham that’s struggling to put together an immigration policy deal, as Politico reports:
In an interview, the Cuban-American senator said that with Republicans in full control of Washington, a gang of senators from each party will not dictate Congress’ solution to protecting hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from deportation….
Three GOP senators said in interviews that the recently-reelected Rubio is privately aligning with a group of immigration hard-liners behind a bill that would cut some legal immigration and further limit refugees. Asked directly, Rubio did not specifically say he would back the measure by Sens. David Perdue (R-Ga.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), but said “there’s a lot of concepts in that bill I could support.”
Uh-huh. Rubio isn’t going to be outflanked again.
And so, his perpetual drift is a reasonably good barometer for his party’s movement on immigration policy, as one of his Florida colleagues indicated:
“He’s a bellwether on this issue as to what can happen, what can pass, what cannot,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a fellow Republican from South Florida. “His voice could either be exceedingly helpful or help kill something. I think he carries that much clout on this issue.”
The original meaning of the term “bellwether” is “the leading sheep in a flock, with a bell on its neck.” That sounds like Rubio, all right. And it may take an act of God — or of Trump — to change the herd’s rightward direction.