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Juan Williams: Rubio’s pointless flip-flop

Greg Nash

Top political professionals, please explain this one to me:

Why is Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) turning his back on the Senate immigration bill? Last week, the Tea Party favorite abandoned ship on using the Senate bill as the basis for negotiating immigration reform with House Republicans.

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That might make sense if there were a House Republican plan superior to the bipartisan bill that passed the Senate in June. But House Republicans have yet to pass anything. 

No legislation has been introduced. The House GOP conference has no strategy. At best there are discussions about a fragmented approach to various immigration problems with piecemeal legislation.

The bipartisan Senate bill with backing from Rubio, the party’s best-known Hispanic, was a much-needed spur to get the House to act or risk embarrassment. 

The only explanation of Rubio’s action that makes sense to me is that right-wing consultants convinced him this reversal makes him competitive with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) of government shutdown fame for the support of Tea Party voters in the 2016 Republican presidential primary. 

This is a race to the bottom of political pandering.

In a recent speech, President Obama talked about the politics of immigration reform.

I “believe that good policy is good politics in this instance,” Obama said. “And if folks are really that consumed with the politics of fixing our broken immigration system, they should take a closer look at the polls because the American people support this.  It’s not something they reject — they support it.  Everybody wins here if we work together to get this done.  In fact, if there’s a good reason not to pass this common-sense reform, I haven’t heard it.”

Poll numbers support Obama’s analysis and reveal Rubio’s political play to the right wing to be shortsighted.

A CBS news poll (Oct. 18-21) found that 77 percent of Americans favor a pathway to citizenship. Just 20 percent oppose it. The same poll found that 69 percent of self-described Republicans favor the pathway compared to just 28 percent who are opposed.   

That’s why Rubio’s recent flip-flop does not make sense in terms of hardball, winning politics. He has sacrificed his popular position as the voice of most voters on immigration and he has received nothing in return from GOP hardliners. 

The only current hope for House action on immigration is that Republicans will introduce isolated pieces of reform one at a time — from border security to visas for temporary workers. 

This step-by-step approach is a dodge. None of the steps being considered includes a pathway to citizenship for the more than 10 million illegal immigrants now in the country.

Anything coming out of the House that does not address a pathway to citizenship is a dead letter with Senate Democrats. That is why Sen. Rubio’s abandonment of the Senate plan was such a deadly blow for immigration reform.

“I am just trying to be realistic about what is achievable,” the senator said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal last week. He claimed he is simply giving House Republicans “the time and space to decide how they want to move forward, which appears to be with a series of individual bills.” 

Again, that political calculus makes no sense. The anti-immigration reform forces in the House GOP are not going to change their position because Rubio abandoned the Senate bill. He just looks weaker. 

And he is hurting budding bipartisan House efforts. In October Rep. Joe Garcia (D-Fla.) introduced a comprehensive bill. It includes a pathway to citizenship. Last week Garcia’s bill won co-sponsorship from three conservative House Republicans: Californians David Valadao and Jeff Denham, and Florida’s Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

But before that bill can gain momentum, the biggest supporter of a bipartisan plan is walking away.

Rubio’s Senate bill was no liberal fantasy. It contained excessive spending on border security to address the concerns of conservative Republicans who want the border sealed. It also put in place harsh requirements for enforcing existing laws in order to gain support for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers. The bill passed with the support of 12 Republican senators. 

That was smart politics.

Now the only people Rubio is making happy are Tea Party politicians who don’t want any serious immigration reform.

“You could theoretically come up with a bill that does it all,” Rubio told the Tampa Bay Times last week. “But realistically, given the environment we’re in right now, especially, the only chance of success on immigration may be a series of bills that build on each other.”

That process should begin with Rubio fighting for his own immigration plan and seeing it through to the end, regardless of the politics.

Otherwise, he will face the same awkward dilemma as Mitt Romney did in 2012. Romney ended up looking like a foolish flip-flopper because he disavowed the successful health care reform plan he championed in Massachusetts.

When Ronald Reagan was governor of California he had to deal with a Democratic legislature in Sacramento. It required political deals that made both right and left unhappy at times. Reagan’s confidant Bill Clark famous said the best political strategy was to “Let Reagan Be Reagan.”

Rubio should aim to be the next Reagan, not the next Romney.