Marco Rubio's Lonely Fight

The Florida senator's political and cultural boundary-crossing is hurting him now, but it may be just what America needs in the future.

Senator Marco Rubio pauses while addressing the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, Saturday, March 5, 2016.  (Cliff Owen/AP)

There’s something about Senator Marco Rubio that inspires seething hatred in his detractors. But what is it, exactly? It’s natural that progressives wouldn’t be terribly fond of him, as he is an avowed conservative. What’s puzzling, though, is that Rubio seems more intensely disliked on the left than politicians well to his right, who don’t share his zeal for making the tax code more generous towards the working poor. Rubio’s critics on the right, meanwhile, ridicule him for his inconstancy, and his supposed tendency to buckle under pressure. Yet many of these same critics are admirers of President Donald Trump, who is hardly a model of ideological rectitude.

The real reason Rubio is such a lightning rod, I suspect, is that it is in his nature to cross cultural and political boundaries. I’m reminded of the work of the Tomás Jiménez, a Stanford sociologist and a leading expert on immigration-driven cultural change. In The Other Side of Assimilation, Jiménez observes that assimilation is not just a straight-line process in which newcomers, whom he defines as immigrants and the children of at least one immigrant parent, come to resemble established Americans, his term for the U.S.-born children of two U.S.-born parents. Rather, it is a relational process, which “involves back-and-forth adjustments in daily life by both newcomers and established individuals as they come into contact with each other.”

Rubio is perhaps best understood in the context of these back-and-forth adjustments. As a Republican, he’s part of an electoral coalition dominated by older whites living in smaller cities and towns, the vast majority of whom are established Americans. It can be an awkward fit for Rubio, who as the son of working-class immigrant strivers has spent most of his life in the Spanish-speaking suburbs of Miami. Throughout his political career, he’s made the case that the fate of newcomers and of the established are bound together, and that a forward-looking conservatism can unite them. When addressing Tea Party stalwarts, he serves as reminder that there are newcomers who share their deepest beliefs. In more cosmopolitan environs, he represents the promise of a more culturally modern and pragmatic right. To do so, however, Rubio has had to speak different languages, literally and figuratively. And that’s become harder to do. In the Trump era, America’s political boundaries have become battle lines, and to cross them is to invite a ferocious reaction. Nevertheless, Rubio presses on.

Consider Rubio’s decision to take part in CNN’s Parkland town hall on Wednesday night. It was clear from the beginning that most of the attendees would be inclined to support more stringent gun regulations, and that no one would be cheering him on for defending gun rights in the wake of a school shooting that had touched almost everyone in the room. Making the case for an expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment at an NRA rally is one thing. Making it to a grieving parent who has just lost a child is quite another.

So why did Rubio take part in the event when, say, Rick Scott, the governor of Florida, did not? Maybe, though he knew he’d be loudly denounced, he felt he owed it to the families of Broward County to explain where he was coming from even as he listened to, and took in, their concerns. Broward County, like Rubio’s native Miami-Dade, is highly diverse, and it’s home to many affluent suburbanites who find it hard to relate to the conservatism of rural established Americans. The people gathered at the Parkland town hall were either newcomers themselves or people who’ve long since embraced a more cosmopolitan way of life, in which firearms have no symbolic appeal. Rubio knows this world well, yet he’s also accountable to millions of Floridians who have an entirely different relationship to guns. And so he had to somehow thread the needle. Over the course of the event, he did just that. Rubio defended the legitimacy of the NRA’s role in American politics, yet he also expressed openness to backing at least some new gun regulations, including some he had opposed as recently as earlier this week.

Inevitably, champions of gun rights were appalled by Rubio’s apparent surrender on raising the age limit to purchase a rifle, and his willingness to consider a ban on high-capacity magazines. Opponents of the NRA were equally incensed by Rubio’s failure to condemn the organization, and for not moving further in their direction. Left unnoticed is that he was, in his fitful way, working towards a position that just might represent a workable compromise between warring camps.

This isn’t the first time Rubio’s efforts to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable have gotten him into trouble. During the Obama administration, he was skewered for crafting an immigration bill that would have granted legal status to a large majority of unauthorized immigrants, something he pledged not to do as a Senate candidate in 2010, and that would have sharply increased immigration levels. Though much of the criticism of the Gang of Eight bill was richly deserved, and though I opposed it, it’s not hard to offer a sympathetic interpretation of his failed effort: Rubio saw an opportunity for a lasting settlement of an issue that divides newcomers and the established, and he went for it. But the price he paid was high. One could argue that Rubio’s central role in the Gang of Eight sealed his fate in the race for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.

More recently, he threatened to blow up Republican efforts to pass a sweeping tax bill unless his fellow lawmakers increased the refundable portion of its expanded child credit, a measure that would have made the bill far more of a boon to low- and middle-income households—including newcomer households like the one in which he was raised. In doing so, Rubio made an enemy of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, which lambasted him on more than one occasion for embracing redistribution, and he provoked members of the all-important GOP donor class. What he failed to do, however, was win over a critical mass of Senate Democrats to his cause. In the end, Rubio managed to get at least part of what he was asking for. The refundable portion of the credit was ultimately increased. And yet he gained little in the way of respect from egalitarians for his lonely crusade.

It’s easy to see Rubio as a tragic figure. But that would be a mistake. Right now, his boundary-crossing makes him a target. In the years to come, as the country continues to change, and as the need for new settlements that can reconcile the clashing interests of newcomers and the established grows more urgent, we’ll need him, and others like him, all the more.