Two Republican Senators playing influential roles in the immigration debate are demonstrating contrasting profiles in leadership this week. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who is up for re-election in 2014 in one of the most conservative states in the nation, responded to the possibility of ads being run against him on immigration by noting, “If you want to run ads, spend all the money you want to spend…I’m not backing off.” Senator Graham is embracing his role and responsibility and recognizes that the time is right for reform, stating, “I think we’re at a point now where 2013 is the best chance to have a comprehensive immigration bill that I’ve seen…I am confident.”
Enter Senator Marco Rubio. On Sunday he threw a dose of cold water on the announcement that business interests and the labor movement had reached a historic agreement on the contours of a new immigrant worker program. He expressed concern that the immigration reform process may be moving too quickly, and sent a letter to Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy echoing a similar missive from reform opponents Jeff Sessions and Charles Grassley.
Then, some Republican consultants put out the word that, in the words of today’s Politico piece, “the Florida senator is more willing than people think to pull the plug if it looks like conservative resistance is too strong,” and that “Rubio’s view has evolved from believing he needed passage in order to display a substantive accomplishment, to believing he will get credit for trying so aggressively.” As one of the unnamed consultants said, “what matters is the fight.”
This has the punditry speculating about Rubio’s motives and leadership abilities (the best pieces are linked below). Is the Senator ready to lead or is he ready to walk?
According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:
If Senator Rubio thinks he can blow up immigration reform and benefit politically, he’s sorely mistaken. The American people want Washington and their leaders to fix the dysfunctional system once and for all. They don’t want political gamesmanship. The simple fact is that, at this point, Senator Rubio has much to lose if he walks away from immigration reform and much to gain if he helps to pass it. If he takes one of the exit ramps he keeps building for himself, Latino voters will never forget that he put his own political ambitions over the hopes and dreams of their own community. And anti-reform conservatives won’t give him a bear hug for bailing. On the other hand, if he leads and produces an historic breakthrough on immigration reform, he’ll be known as a leader that takes risks and produces results.
What would happen if Rubio walks and reform fails? In a recent Latino Decisions poll, 60% said that Republicans will be to blame if reform fails in 2013; 15% said Democrats; and 10% said both parties equally. Asked about the past, 64% of Latino voters nationwide said Republicans have been most to blame for the failure of immigration reform in recent years, while only 10% said Democrats were to blame.
But what happens if reform passes and Republicans share credit? Fully 44% of Latino voters say they would be more likely to vote Republican if the GOP takes a leadership role in passing immigration reform with a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. This includes 43% of Latinos who voted for Obama in 2012, and 49% of Latinos who identify as Independents. In addition, fully 52% of Latino voters have supported a Republican candidate at one point or another.
But what about Republican voters? Even they are in the mood for a deal on this issue. Resurgent Republic, a Republican-allied public opinion research group, last week released findings of four immigration focus groups conducted with Republican voters in the early 2016 caucus/primary states of Iowa and South Carolina. They found that “[a] pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is acceptable to Republican primary voters if it is an earned process and fair to those who are already legally in the system.” In South Carolina, another recent poll found that “only 21 percent of likely Republican primary voters said that the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country should be deported, while 73 percent said they should be offered a path to citizenship provided they pay a fine, go to the back of the line, and learn English.”
Concluded Sharry, “Whatever the strategy behind Senator Rubio’s high-wire juggling act, let’s hope he steps up and not back.”
A range of observers are also analyzing Senator Rubio’s positioning:
- Maribel Hastings of America’s Voice writes (translated from her influential Spanish language column), “Rubio is at a crossroads: he can be a leader in his party on immigration reform and go down in history as the man who began to rebuild the near-nonexistent relationship between the Republican Party and Latino voters, or the leader of the conservative wing opposed to reform that has done nothing to win Republicans the White House—as demonstrated in recent elections, most clearly in 2012. Which side is he on?”
- Benjy Sarlin at Talking Points Memo writes, “But while Rubio’s recent behavior does give him more room to drop out, it’s highly unlikely he will actually do so. Instead, this latest Rubio flareup looks an awful lot like the last big Rubio flareup on immigration — a wink to conservatives without any actual substantive concerns behind it…The latest complaint fits the same pattern, with Rubio once again setting himself up to claim credit for winning concessions that no one opposed in the first place.”
- Michael Tomasky in the Daily Beast writes, “Rubio actually deserves credit for some of the steps he’s taken on immigration so far. But what he said over the weekend sounded for all the world like somebody who really secretly wants to kill the bill. He may or may not. But the one thing he definitely does not want to kill is his presidential chances, and it seems he’s figured that the way to do that is to keep his options on immigration open…keeping one’s options open is the opposite of leadership.”
- Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo writes, “Rubio wasn’t necessary to reform passing. But he inserted himself into the process, attempting to position himself as the indispensable person. But his role has mainly been to attempt to slow down the process, find points of disagreements where few if any existed and continue to make sure he had as many escape hatches as possible if it became necessary for him to bail out of the process. Through the whole process it’s been pretty clear — if only because of his refusal to state a clear position — that there aren’t really any policy issues Rubio is focused on. The whole game is Rubio 2016.”
- Greg Sargent at the Washington Post writes, “No doubt Rubio has a very tough balancing act to strike. He needs to reassure conservatives that he’s prepared to walk away from any deal, and that he’s getting them everything he can in the process. If he does this successfully, it could potentially bring some of them along. But…Senate Democrats have already vowed not to procedurally rush the process and have promised to run things through the typical committee and amendment process. Lending aid and comfort to the ‘slow down’ caucus could make things worse, given that their apparent aim is to allow opponents more time to kill reform.”