Rumors of Marco Rubio's Political Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

His push for immigration reform hasn't cost him a chance at the GOP nomination in 2016.
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Has Marco Rubio's advocacy for immigration reform destroyed his ability to win the GOP nomination in 2016? Or is it instead "foolish," as John McCain put it, to write off his presidential aspirations?

The short answer: McCain is right. Rubio 2016 is as likely to succeed now as it was six months ago. The House of Representatives may be unlikely to pass an immigration bill, due in large part to opposition from rank-and-file conservatives. But the voters who dictate the outcomes in GOP congressional primaries shouldn't be confused with the voters who decide GOP presidential primaries. And a 2013 legislative setback will be long-forgotten come 2015.

Pundits constantly underestimate how short attention spans are, and the capacity of pols to shape shift.

Let's reflect on some recent Republican Party history. Here are its nominees going back to 1980: Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain, and Willard "Mitt" Romney. The last amnesty was signed by the most popular of those men. Post-Reagan, the most conservative voters in the GOP have never succeeded in elevating their preferred candidate, with the arguable exception of 2000, when George W. Bush began two terms in office, all the while supporting immigration reform that resembles what Marco Rubio was trying to pass. Prior to winning the nomination in 2008, McCain had completely alienated immigration hardliners, during a period of debate over reform that was much more heated than today's fight, that took place before the GOP establishment deemed the issue a long-term loser.

It's true that Romney positioned himself as an immigration hardliner during the 2012 primary cycle, but another way to put that is that he changed his persona on the issue at the last moment and won anyway. Nothing in the history of GOP primaries suggests supporting "beefed up enforcement + path to citizenship" in 2013 is going to hurt Rubio's prospects as primaries ramp up 2015. If Romneycare, of all things, wasn't a dealbreaker for the primary electorate of 2012, why would a failed attempt at immigration reform be a dealbreaker in 2016?

That isn't to say Rubio will win the GOP primaries, just that he has a chance.

The widespread enthusiasm he inspires among Republicans has always been a mystery to me. Is there any depth to the man? Any ability to communicate in anything other than conservative boilerplate? I haven't seen evidence of it. (At the same time, conservative boilerplate got him elected to the U.S. Senate and fawned over by figures throughout the conservative movement. Who knows what qualities he'd surprise us with if success required them?)

Here's the thing about forecasting GOP primaries: It's a mistake to proceed as if these contests unfold rationally, or as if the political analysis offered by Rich Lowry and Bill Kristol is necessarily sound.

Remember Sarah Palin? Remember how frequently Bill Kristol's predictions are wrong? * 

I don't pretend to understand the parts of the conservative base that treated the former Alaska governor as a would-be savior, or elevated Herman Cain, or imagined that Michele Bachmann could seriously contend for the presidency, or dismissed Jon Huntsman, or flirted with housing-subsidy historian Newt Gingrich, or embraced Rick Santorum even as they complained about Bush-era excesses. But the skill of appealing to those voters is something Rubio has demonstrated in the past, and there's no reason to think he won't hit on a way to do it again going forward. 

He's also always appealed to the GOP establishment. Immigration won't change that either. He'll don a navy-blue blazer with gold buttons, fundraise at the Balboa Bay Club, and everyone will fawn.

The 2016 election will be a crazy free-for-all. Some candidates will just be there trying out for Fox News gigs! Right now, no one can claim to know its trajectory, let alone to have a clear path to the nomination. What kind of candidate the GOP chooses will depend in part on how strong the Democrats seem. Senator Rubio nevertheless has as good a chance as anyone, or at least as good a chance as he ever did. Come debate time, he may flame out, Rick Perry style, or catch fire. For the time being, rumors of his political death are greatly exaggerated, and should be ignored.

 

__

* Let me remind youHere are some forecasts Kristol made prior to Election 2008:

  • "This fall, the Democratic Congress will end up being more of a problem for Obama or Clinton than Bush will be for the Republican nominee." 
  • "... The GOP has lucked into having as its nominee John McCain, one of the most popular politicians in America. What's more, conservatism as a set of ideas is in pretty good shape. 'Neoconservative' thinking on America's place in the world has beaten back attempts to revive the crabbed 'realism' of some congressional Republicans in the 1990s as a plausible approach for dealing with the world of the 21st century."
  • "Sarah Palin is quickly proving to be more than a match for the mad, mad media. Having foolishly started a war with her that they can't win, the liberal media would be well advised, for once, to implement their own favorite war-fighting strategy: cut and run."
  • "The Democratic candidates have, as Joe Lieberman said last week, 'emotionally invested in a narrative of defeat and retreat in Iraq.' They've also politically invested in such a narrative. It was a bad (and dishonorable) investment. It may well cost them the 2008 election."
  • "Before last night, I thought it was 50-50 that the Republican nominee would win in November 2008. Now I think it's 2 to 1. And if the Democrat is anyone but Hillary, it's 4 to 1."

Then there were the 2006 midterms, before which Kristol said this:

Today, Nancy Pelosi endorsed withdrawal from Iraq. Her statement is a political opportunity for the GOP. Until now, it seemed to me more likely than not that Democrats would win back the House in 2006: Bush's numbers are bad; the GOP is getting no credit for a strong economy (which could in any case weaken by a year from now); the Abramoff scandal is going to get bigger; 12 years in charge of the House, and three years in control of all three elected bodies, have created weariness and dissatisfaction with the GOP. All this made me think the 2006 elections could result in a Speaker Pelosi. I now think that unlikely.

He also said:

They can talk themselves into a frenzy about illegal immigration, of course. But on this issue, the Senate managed -- contrary to the conventional wisdom of late April -- easily to pass a sensible and comprehensive immigration reform bill. And House Republicans now show some signs of coming to realize that talk radio is not always the best source of policy guidance. Enough of them may come to realize that passing legislation they regard as flawed would be better than going home to the voters having achieved nothing. So Bush could have an immigration reform signing ceremony to look forward to in the fall.

Another gem from 2006:

Congress extended, and the president signed, the wildly successful supply-side tax cuts on interest and dividend income originally passed in 2003. The new tax rates are now in force until 2010, providing helpful certainty for the economy and the markets..."

Kristol's read on the political landscape in January 2004?

[Howard] Dean could, of course, still lose the nomination. But he's in an awfully strong position. He leads in the polls, in money, in organization, and in proven ability to generate enthusiastic and committed supporters. He is opposed by a fragmented field. Still, he could falter, and if he did, Wesley Clark would seem to have the best chance to overtake him.

His analysis on March 26, 2001:

The truth is, liberal secularists like the good Reverend Lynn see the interest and passion generated by President Bush's faith-based initiative. They sense that something big is happening... George W. Bush understands this is his signature initiative. Tax cuts are good, and missile defense is important -- but both are traditional, Reagan-era agenda items. If this president is to have a distinctive legacy, it's likely to be that he brought an end to decades of government hostility to religion and inaugurated a neo-Tocquevillean era in which religion and liberty, pluralism and faith, are no longer at odds.

July 3, 2000:

In sum: With a Bush administration, there is a fighting chance to roll back the worst excesses of liberal judicial activism, even a prospect of removing Roe, keystone of the modern imperial judiciary.

May 22, 1999:

China should and will emerge as a central issue in American politics over the next 18 months, and especially in the 2000 presidential campaign.

May 4, 1998:

I know, I know. His approval rating is sky-high. The American people don't want to hear about his sex life. Ken Starr has a tin ear for politics. Republicans in Congress are afraid of taking Clinton on. All more or less true. But all, ultimately, more or less irrelevant. A year from now, Clinton will be gone.

January 19, 1998:

... abortion is likely to emerge as the central issue in the presidential campaign of 2000. Or, more precisely, the status of Roe v. Wade is likely to emerge as the central issue.

November 6, 1995:

Lamar Alexander. Bill Clinton. Bob Dole. Newt Gingrich. Phil Gramm. Colin Powell. One of these six will almost certainly be our next president. Which will it be? Not, I think, Clinton ... Clinton is weak and untrustworthy at a time when Americans crave strength and honesty.

September 8, 1995:

Suddenly, Bob Dole's nomination no longer seems inevitable. Having won less than a quarter of the vote in the Iowa straw poll, he now trails Bill Clinton in national surveys. Focus groups suggest that the age issue is beginning to bite, and the return of a campaign contribution to a group of gay Republicans indicates a touch of panic. Maybe the Dole campaign will shake off these troubles and cruise to victory. But maybe not... If I had to bet today on one person for the Republican presidential nomination, I'd put my money on Colin Powell.

Tentative conclusion: When it comes to American politics, there is an extraordinarily weak relationship between what Kristol confidently predicts is going to happen and what actually happens.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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