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Rubio, Walker, and GOP Immigration Politics

Following Scott Walker’s withdrawal from the race, the new conventional wisdom is that Rubio is the candidate to benefit most:

The first beneficiary of the end of Scott Walker’s presidential campaign is the other new-generation Republican in the race who is presenting himself as a fresh face ready to shake up Washington: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Once again, there is a lot of loose talk about Rubio having a “moment,” which by my count must be the fifth or sixth “moment” that he has had since running for Senate. Each time that he has one of these so-called “moments,” he either implodes or remains more or less where he was. Whether he is being dubbed the party’s “savior” after the 2012 election, or touted as a party leader because of his domestic policy proposals, or cheered on for taking a predictable hard-line position on Cuba, Rubio is repeatedly held up as someone whose time has come and then he fails to live up to the hype. The post-2012 enthusiasm about Rubio gave way to the immigration debacle that continues to haunt him, and his dead-ender opposition to Cuba normalization appears to have done absolutely nothing to boost his political fortunes.

It is true that Rubio is inheriting many of Walker’s donors and some campaign staff, but beyond that it is difficult to see how Walker’s departure really helps him. In at least one respect, the fate of Walker’s campaign may be a prelude of what awaits Rubio. Almost all observers have acknowledged that it was Walker’s confused, inconsistent handling of immigration issues that helped to wreck his campaign, and immigration is far and away Rubio’s greatest vulnerability with most Republican primary voters. The original argument in favor of Rubio as a presidential candidate was that he could supposedly expand the Republican coalition and broaden the party’s appeal because he was a pro-immigration Cuban-American. Ever since the 2013 immigration debacle, he has been desperately running away from his support for “Gang of Eight” Senate immigration bill and has made a point of presenting himself (not very credibly) as an immigration hawk. Rubio’s competitors can use that bill to bludgeon Rubio to good effect among primary voters, and reminding everyone about how quickly he backtracked on the bill will make him appear to be an opportunist.

Like Walker, Rubio is trying to placate donors by trying to appear not very restrictionist while needing to satisfy primary voters by pretending that he is much more of a restrictionist than he is. He is seeking to position himself in the “middle lane” in the GOP that Walker unsuccessfully tried to occupy. Walker discovered that trying to satisfy both sides of the party on this issue ended up alienating both, and there is no reason to assume that Rubio will be able to pull off that balancing act much better than Walker did. It is just a matter of time until Rubio’s immigration record is used against him in the campaign. It should be even more harmful to his candidacy when that happens, because the immigration bill he supported and then abandoned was intended to be one of his signature accomplishments and except for his work on that bill he doesn’t have much to show for his time in the Senate. It may not be long before Rubio wishes Walker were still in the race to distract attention from his weaknesses on this issue.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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