Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) new proposals on foreign policy and immigration have raised his national profile and represent a very public audition to become Mitt Romney’s running mate.
Rubio has repeatedly said he will not be on the presidential ticket this fall, but political insiders say the freshman senator is clearly attempting to show his skills on the national stage.
Rubio, 40, delivered a major foreign-policy speech Wednesday at the Brookings Institution. He touted former President Reagan’s foreign-policy legacy in the Republican Party, outlining a hawkish view of America’s role in world affairs and chiding some Republicans for adopting a softer approach.
Rubio is sure to take heat from the left and the right on immigration. The Hill reported earlier this week that immigration hawks have warned Romney not to go soft on border security. Democrats have already criticized Rubio’s effort as political and insufficient.
Foreign policy and immigration are two issues that many politicians avoid because the former does not usually generate many votes and the latter often sparks bitter backlashes.
Republicans praise Rubio for his courage, but they acknowledge his aggressive approach is not without risk, especially on the charged topic of immigration.
“It shows his leadership that he’s willing to wade in. What he’s trying to do is deal with the few exceptional cases that are very emotional, those that are brought here by their parents,” said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). “It is a difficult line, because we’ve got to respect the rule of law. If we don’t, our heritage of immigration is going to become resented by many people, including naturalized citizens.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said tackling immigration “absolutely” posed a political risk to Rubio but that it is important.
“Our party is in reverse with the Hispanic vote,” said Graham. “We’ve got to have a practical solution. We have to show we’re tough but fair and humane.”
Graham added that Rubio’s efforts on immigration are “good for the party.”
Insisting that the country has an important and active role to play in world affairs, Rubio portrayed himself Wednesday as a Republican in the mold of Reagan and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, and rejected sentiments within his party that have grown with the emergence of the Tea Party.
“I disagree with voices in my own party who argue we should not engage at all. Who warn that we should heed the words of John Quincy Adams not to go ‘abroad, in search of monsters to destroy,’ ” he said.
He warned the United States might need to intervene militarily to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and urged a more active role in bringing down the Assad regime in Syria.
Rubio called for a multilateral approach to put more pressure on China to address intellectual property theft, allegations of human-rights violations, unfair trading practices and currency manipulation.
It is a position that fits well with Romney, who has made Chinese currency manipulation a focus of his campaign and criticized President Obama for not living up to his 2008 pledge to take China “to the mat.”
Rubio’s foreign-policy views, however, may chafe at Tea Party conservatives, who want to reduce the nation’s role in other countries’ economic and security affairs.
Rubio endorsed a renewed pursuit of missile defense strategies and enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), two issues that are highly sensitive for Russia.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a member of the Senate Tea Party Caucus who did not attend Rubio’s speech, warned that expanding NATO could draw the United States into future wars.
“People who want to expand NATO membership need to understand that any member of NATO has a guarantee from the United States that we’ll defend them if they’re attacked,” he said.
Rubio is expected to lay down his marker in the immigration reform debate later this year when he unveils an alternative version of the DREAM Act, which would let illegal immigrants who came to the country at a young age avoid deportation if they meet certain conditions. Rubio has said his plan would not grant a special path to citizenship to illegal residents.
Republican lawmakers and strategists say Rubio’s effort could do much to help his party’s foundering support among Hispanic voters, the fastest-growing bloc of the electorate.
Dan Schnur, who worked on several Republican presidential campaigns and now serves as director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, said, “Rubio has thrown Romney an immigration lifeline. The question is whether Romney decides to
grab onto it or not. If he does sign on to Rubio’s proposal, it dramatically changes the nature of the immigration debate.”
He said it would be difficult for Democrats to paint Romney as anti-immigrant if he supported a competing version of the DREAM Act.
Earlier this year, Romney said he would veto the Democratic DREAM Act, though he subsequently backtracked.
Romney has called Arizona’s border-security law a “model” for the nation. Rubio has defended its constitutionality but said it should not be a model for the rest of country. The Supreme Court on Wednesday heard oral arguments on whether the law should be tossed.
Alfonso Aguilar, the executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said Rubio’s legislative effort on immigration will draw criticism. But he said Romney cannot win the White House if Hispanic voters do not change their views of the GOP.
“It takes courage. By proposing an alternative to the DREAM Act, he will be criticized by the restrictionist sectors of the party who are a minority but are very well-organized,” said Aguilar. “This is vital politically to the GOP, and Rubio is playing a vital role.”
Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, an advocacy group that has worked to defeat the DREAM Act in 2007 and 2010, said Rubio would find few GOP allies on immigration.
He said it appears from news reports that Rubio’s immigration bill is a watered-down version of Democratic legislation.
— Updated at 8:49 p.m.