Passing major legislation is not a path to the presidency. So why is Sen. Marco Rubio, who is almost surely running for the 2016 Republican nomination, working so hard on comprehensive immigration reform?
Look at the only lawmaker who has become president in the last half-century. Barack Obama did almost nothing in his brief time in the Senate. His career in the world’s greatest deliberative body consisted mainly of showing up, becoming immediately dissatisfied and looking for something better.
Obama never took a leading role crafting any piece of momentous legislation. And some of the things he did do, like voting against raising the debt ceiling and voting to filibuster a Supreme Court nominee, came back to bite him when he moved into the White House. But mainly, Sen. Obama held to the same arm’s length, disengaged philosophy that led him to vote “present” 129 times in the Illinois legislature.
If the plan was to move up, it worked spectacularly well.
On the other hand, look at the most recent senator who ran for president with a record of passing big legislation. John McCain led a crusade for campaign finance reform and tried hard, if unsuccessfully, to enact immigration reform in 2006 and 2007. That kind of work forces a lawmaker to take stands, which can lead to making enemies, which can lead to trouble in his own party. It doesn’t lead to the White House.
So now Marco Rubio, a presidential hopeful, is all-in for immigration reform, with all the potential for disaster that entails. Why is he doing it?
Obviously, Rubio has a personal interest in the topic. The son of Cubans who came to the United States, his life was shaped by immigration. And he represents Florida, where 23 percent of residents are of Hispanic origin. So it’s important to him, and to many of his constituents.
“Marco isn’t doing this because of politics,” says Rubio adviser Todd Harris. “If politics was all that mattered, it probably would have been easier to do nothing. He’s doing it because our immigration system is broken.” Citing problems with border security, visa security and 11 million immigrants here illegally, Harris adds, “There are a lot of reasons why he supports immigration reform, but none of them have anything to do with politics.”
Without suggesting that any of that is untrue, it is nevertheless a fact that politicians consider the political effects of the things they do. So how might Rubio see the upsides and downsides of taking a leading role on a particularly hot-button issue?
“It’s a big political risk in Republican primary land, but he will get a needed stature bump,” says one veteran GOP operative who supports reform. “And doing the smart thing in the GOP primaries these days is almost always the wrong thing to do if you ever hope to be elected president, as President Romney can now tell you. So the politics are actually good in the longer game, which is the only game that can ever pay off.”
That’s useful advice, but only if immigration reform turns out to be the kind of issue that wins widespread approval. The problem is, recent polling has shown much public skepticism over the government’s ability, or even inclination, to secure the border. And without that security, public approval of immigration reform goes down, down, down — not just among Republicans, but among independents, too.
That means if Rubio sticks with the Gang of Eight, he might alienate millions of Americans who put security above any other immigration issue, and if he drops out, he might alienate everybody else.
In addition, as far as Republican primary voters are concerned, Rubio has taken a huge risk by hanging out with a bad crowd. McCain, fellow GOP Gang of Eight member Lindsey Graham (known to some critics as “Lindsey Grahamnesty”) and Democrat Charles Schumer are not a popular bunch with the GOP base.
The bottom line is that if Rubio is playing a long game, as the GOP strategist suggests, he’s running a significant risk of never making it through the Republican primaries. And if he’s playing a shorter game, and insists on tough, GOP-pleasing measures, he risks blowing up the whole immigration project and looking like the villain.
And if he’s playing no game at all — if he is really doing it just because he believes it’s the right thing to do — there is still this: When it comes to running for president, voters don’t much care about bills passed and votes taken. Barack Obama knew that instinctively. Will Rubio learn the same lesson from immigration reform?
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.