The immigration reform debacle is forcing Rubio to lurch right in a way that makes him look like a guy who has no political core, no principles – just an opportunist.
Rubio’s problem here isn’t that he now wants to emphasize other issues where he and most conservatives agree. Following Rubio’s misjudgment in backing a bad immigration bill that he had to know most conservatives would reject, this is an understandable exercise in damage control. Rubio’s original mistake was to campaign one way–as an anti-amnesty Republican in the primary and general election–and then to make a top priority of the passage of an immigration bill that he would have denounced when he was a candidate. My guess is that Rubio was just reverting back to a position on immigration in 2012 and 2013 that he likely held all along, but that means that Rubio’s real opportunism was in taking a position on immigration he didn’t really support in 2010 in order to dupe conservatives in a midterm election into voting for him. The funny thing is that Rubio probably didn’t need to do this. Republican opposition to Crist because of his rank opportunism was intense in 2009 and 2010, and Rubio might have been able to win the nomination and the election without pandering on immigration.
Even more than the substance of the bill, what angers Rubio’s conservative supporters is the sudden reversal that shows how empty Rubio’s words on the subject were and how easily they were conned on this issue by their would-be hero. Oddly enough, Rubio’s overblown reputation as a conservative folk hero after 2010 potentially makes all of this more damaging than it would be otherwise, since this bill is the sort of thing that their idealized Rubio was not supposed to pursue when he went to Washington. If Rubio had been perceived early on for what he was (a Jeb Bush protege and state party fixture), there might have been less enthusiasm for him, but there would have also been a more accurate understanding of what he was likely to do once in office. Rubio wouldn’t be in his current predicament if he hadn’t encouraged activists and pundits to make him into a conservative folk hero. This created mistaken expectations for how Rubio would act in office, and it probably encouraged Rubio to think that he could get away with selling a bad immigration bill to conservative audiences without suffering any significant backlash.