How Flip-Flopping on Immigration Could Help Marco Rubio Win the GOP Nomination

Perhaps he'll take the Mitt Romney path: Win moderates by making reform proposals and hardliners by shamelessly renouncing them. 
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Back when Marco Rubio was a rising star, I was flummoxed by all the rave reviews. What did everyone see in the guy? Watching his speeches, like the one he gave at the Reagan Library, I heard nothing but bromides and tired conservative boilerplate. I certainly never thought I wanted him leading the country. But even though I wouldn't mourn the death of his chances in the 2016 Republican primaries, I can't help but think that it is being declared prematurely. 

Observers like Isaac Chotiner aren't wrong when they point out all of the substantively incoherent, politically questionable decisions the Florida senator has made. But the last two GOP nominating contests strongly suggest that years of impulsive shape-shifting are not an obstacle to winning the party's nomination! 

The latest news has Rubio distancing himself from the immigration-reform legislation he previously championed. Jonathan Chait ably unpacks the absurdity of the position that he's put forth as if it could possibly be taken seriously. 

But the Mitt Romney campaign taught me something. Yes, there's always a cost to being perceived as a flip-flopper. There is, however, a perverse way in which a certain kind of flip-flopping smooths the path to Republican nomination. Start with a GOP riven by divides between Tea Partiers and the establishment, and primaries where neither faction can be entirely dismissed. Moderate Republicans turn out in greater numbers in presidential elections.

How do you win over the moderates and independents?

Try to take on a big issue like health care or immigration reform, push a center-right solution, and win a reputation as someone with an earnest desire to solve problems. Can you imagine David Brooks lauding Marco Rubio in a column?

I can!

How do you then win over the conservative base? It helps to have gotten your start as a Tea Party darling who, even during the attempt at immigration reform, went on talk radio to be fawned over by the hosts. 

How do you win them over even after the immigration-reform backlash? Pull a Mitt Romney.

Show the most extreme form of subservience to conservative activists. At their urging, abandon your very own approach to reform while getting ornery with the Democrats. You'll take flak from the media. Your deep, ambition-driven cynicism will be noted and your integrity questioned. And sure, that'll do some damage. But conservative activists will know how much you're willing to debase yourself on their behalf. If you seem like the most viable general-election candidate, they'll back you despite their misgivings, because you'll have convinced them you're pliable.

They love pandering—just look at where they get their information.

Meanwhile, moderates will still convince themselves that, if elected and freed from the need to pander to the conservative base, you'll govern pragmatically like your "real" self. They won't like your new persona as much. Many will judge you inauthentic. But better you than those wing-nuts who seem as though they really believe it! 

Rubio is unlikely to win the nomination using this strategy, if only because every person and every strategy is unlikely to be the ultimate winner. But doesn't the dynamic I've described at least partially capture how McCain and Romney won the GOP nomination? They benefitted from deep divisions in their party, thrilled no one, yet seemed acceptable to enough primary voters to win, in part because shape-shifting made it possible for lots of people to decide they saw the real guy. 

In 2012, Romney won the primary of the party that is still flailing in impotent outrage at Obamacare, despite having backed a health-care policy that looked a lot like it in Massachusetts. 

Come 2016, immigration reform is unlikely to be as big a deal as health care was and is. Rubio won't need to twist himself in nearly the pretzel Romney did to explain himself. He may not be anyone's favorite Republican. But come primary time, he'll still be acceptable to moderates. He'll still be acceptable to Tea Partiers. And he'll still be acceptable to neocons.

Rubio isn't the candidate I'd bet on to win. But I certainly wouldn't bet against anyone who can say that about those three groups. His flip-flop on immigration hasn't ruined his chances. Repudiating the centrist compromises that you once championed is how GOP nominations are won.

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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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