By John Feehery - 06/24/13 09:42 PM EDT
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is trying to save the conservative movement from itself. The question today is: Will it let itself be saved?
As an upstart outsider, Rubio ran against the Washington establishment and the conventional wisdom to take on a seemingly invincible Florida governor in a heated race for an open Senate seat.
Almost immediately, the new Florida senator and Republican star hinted that he wasn’t entirely comfortable merely being a product of the Tea Party. He wasn’t an isolationist, and he believed in a muscled American foreign policy, a departure from the newly dominant Ron Paul wing of the Tea Party. As a former Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, he knew how to legislate, and he had an appreciation for the proper role of government, which distinguished him from so many of the Tea Party activists.
Rubio might have felt some discomfort with the Tea Party, but the Tea Party felt no discomfort with Rubio, at least at the beginning. In fact, one of the leading groups, the Tea Party Express, endorsed Rubio as its leading choice to be Mitt Romney’s vice presidential candidate in 2012.
Last week, the bloom came off the rose. The Tea Party turned on its former hero as if he were Robespierre during the Thermidorian Reaction.
Ostensibly put together to protest the Internal Revenue Service and its harassment of conservative groups, a political rally’s participants in D.C. quickly turned their attention to the immigration reform debate and to Rubio’s place in it. “Primary him,” one protestor cried out as Robert Rector, the Heritage Foundation analyst, claimed that Rubio had not even read his own legislation.
This explosion aimed at the son of Cuban immigrants has been a long in coming. Leading conservative voices have hammered at him for months. Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Eric Erickson and Ann Coulter all have called him either a traitor or a fool, a sell-out or a political naïf, unable to outfox the wily Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Rubio has confronted has critics and won some of them over. He has appeared on television, talked on talk radio and engaged with columnists, pundits and activists alike. And while he has not been perfect throughout the legislative process, he has shown poise, dexterity and restraint.
Passing immigration reform is not easy. I remember when then-Florida Sen. Mel Martinez (R) tried to do it with George W. Bush as president. Martinez was handpicked by the president to lead the Republican National Committee, so he had both the platform and the resources to help push reform, but he ran into a buzz saw of conservative opposition. The effort eventually died in the House, as Republicans who were worried about their primaries said thanks but no thanks to the president and to Rubio’s predecessor.
Has anything really changed from 2006, other than the passing of seven years? You still have the same ant-immigrant nativists pounding the drum of “no amnesty” and demanding an electrified fence. The economy hasn’t improved much. Talk radio has the same cast of characters. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) support this bill, just like they supported the last one.
Rubio is the one variable that has changed. He has the political skills, the communication abilities and the personal story to create a narrative of change desperately needed by the Republican Party and the conservative movement.
Rubio can’t do it all himself, of course, but he is the one most critical man in this debate and how it unfolds for the GOP.
Only Rubio can tell the racists when they are being racist, the nativists when they are being nativists, and the blockheads when they are being blockheads. Only he can describe for conservatives a future where immigrants become absorbed by this country in a melting pot of opportunity and ambition, and a search for personal fulfillment as defined by our founding documents.
Rubio is good at defining that narrative. And if he is successful in getting this bill to its final enactment over the voluminous doubts of the voluminous doubters, he will have a platform from which to preach the conservative gospel of inclusion and freedom to the converted and unconverted alike.
Feehery is president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and spent 15 years working in the House Republican leadership. He is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at thefeeherytheory.com