By A.B. Stoddard - 07/10/13 10:24 PM EDT
It’s hard running for president as a Republican these days. Just ask Mitt Romney and all the contenders he beat in the 2012 GOP primary process, where a conservative like Texas Gov. Rick Perry was considered too liberal on immigration. Running far enough to the right in order to win the primary makes a scramble back to the center by November a high-wire act. It is too soon to tell how difficult it might be for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio to run for president, if he does run in 2016, but right now it looks awful.
Rubio led the charge on comprehensive immigration reform, an act of genuine political courage, and the Senate passed a bipartisan bill 68-32 last month — an extraordinary outcome by many measures. But then he disappeared, absent from triumphant press conferences and victory laps on television. Rubio’s response to making history was not celebration, but something more akin to running from an exploding car.
The groups have been after him to step into the spotlight since April. Back then, Rubio had only been ridiculed by a few editors at the National Review, and had yet to suffer the blows from conservative headliners who savaged him for supporting legalization and a path to citizenship. Glenn Beck called him “a piece of garbage” who had “fallen into the power structure” with radicals and communists. Ann Coulter accused Rubio of lying in the debate and called him “the Jack Kevorkian of the GOP.” Not to be outdone, Sarah Palin called Rubio a lying flip-flopper, and when the poor man received a congratulatory call from President Obama she tweeted the news, likening Rubio to Judas, saying she hoped “it was worth the 30 pieces of silver.”
Erick Erickson of Red State accused Rubio of flipping not only on immigration, which his Senate opponent Charlie Crist supported in their 2010 race, but on stimulus as well, because the Senate bill included $1.5 billion for a youth jobs program to train American workers competing with foreign workers for low-skill jobs. “This is where compromising your principles leads to. Democrats know that if they can get you to break with conservative principles on one issue, then they’ve got their teeth into you and can break you on other issues,” Erickson wrote.
Rubio acknowledged the criticism by saying: “Many conservative commentators and leaders, people who I deeply respect and with whom I agree on virtually every other issue, are disappointed about my involvement in this debate.” But he also took a swipe at people like Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), possible 2016 candidates who opposed the bill, saying, “Truthfully, it would have been a lot easier to just sit back, vote against any proposal and give speeches about how I would have done it differently.”
There are Republicans on Rubio’s side, but with momentum against reform in the House, it doesn’t seem as if the Bush brothers, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the Chamber of Commerce or Karl Rove can turn the tide.
Rubio can hope conservatives eventually forgive him. Or he can hope, as Bill Kristol and Rich Lowry suggest in their National Review piece titled “Kill the Bill,” that Republicans wait until 2015 to pass a better bill. Perhaps it will be so great that Erickson, the Heritage Foundation, most House Republicans, Cruz, Paul, Coulter and others will all hail its passage as Latino voters do and that the debate helps Rubio in the general election.
Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.