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Tuesday, Jul 29, 2014
South Tampa News

O'Neill: Immigration stance not end of Rubio ambitions


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It's becoming increasingly fashionable to write off Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio's presidential ambitions because he screwed up with immigration.

Conventional wisdom says any compromise with Senate Democrats that offers illegals an earned path to citizenship - no matter how long it would take or how circuitous the route - is still a betrayal to the GOP's conservative base. Surely, no candidate can survive the primaries without the support of the truest true believers, although Mitt Romney did manage to muddle through last year.

Conventional wisdom, we are reminded, is often more conventional than wise.

Frankly, I think Rubio has factored in all this 2013 blowback, maybe even the nasty name-calling by the bilious likes of Glenn Beck, who's always on pander auto-pilot. I don't think Rubio's been blindsided. I think he sees the controversy he's swept up in as a short-term price to pay in a longer-term strategy that could yield the look of broader appeal and electability.

Let's put immigration aside for a second, but we'll come back to it.

Rubio has been a vocal critic of President Barack Obama over the budget deficit, health care and Medicaid money for his own state. He remains a favorite son of the National Rifle Association, and he can still rant on Benghazi and the administration's seemingly ad hoc foreign policy.

Rubio is also a fundraising magnet, with his own Reclaim America PAC and as a prime-time, after-dinner speaker. It's an extension of his role as designated Republican respondee to Obama's State of the Union address, which was preceded by the royal treatment he received at the 2012 GOP convention. It's also a concession to the reality that he is youthful, telegenic, articulate, charismatic and Hispanic in a demographically challenged, minority-affronting party that can't beat Hillary Clinton with Rand Paul.

None of that has changed, gang-of-eight affiliation notwithstanding. In fact, it's further evidenced by his role as keynote speaker next month at the high-profile Americans for Prosperity Foundation conference. That's the political offspring of Charles and David Koch, the libertarian billionaires. The Brothers Koch haven't moved their big bash from Washington to Orlando only to have it keynoted by an imploding politician who is yesterday's news.

What Rubio is hoping is that his immigration stand will be analyzed two ways. First, that it will be viewed in the context of his litmus-test positions on other conservative issues. Second, that it will be scrutinized through something other than the zero-sum filter of the shrillest Tea Partiers.

Only über partisans would label as amnesty the immigration bill that passed 68-32 in the Senate, which offers a 13-year path to citizenship to upwards of 11 million immigrants currently living among us unlawfully. But the legislation, which also requires the completion of 700 miles of fencing, deployment of high-tech surveillance devices along the U.S.-Mexico border and the hiring of 20,000 more Border Patrol guards, has, for sure, no chance in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Amnesty is like abortion or welfare to the knee-jerk GOPster fringe.

But polls show most Americans don't consider a 13-year path with qualifiers as amnesty, and most Americans outnumber Beck and strident Tea Partiers. Suffice it to say, most Americans will elect the next president.

In reality, the maintenance of immigration status quo is a form of de facto amnesty. Look for Rubio - and key surrogates - to be pointing that out down the primary road. It will also be noted that he fought the good fight to help bring Americans of all hues and ethnicities together, a theme that will have to become part of the Republican 2016 mantra. And it will have to be part of the primary dynamic. He's still uniquely qualified to bring that off.

Ironically, immigration likely won't determine Rubio's presidential trajectory. Party faithful and Rubistas too easily overlook other issues.

For example, Rubio's roots can be problematic among Hispanics. As a Cuban-American, Rubio has to tap dance around the wet-foot-dry-foot, double standard on immigration that uniquely benefits Cubans. Mexicans, Central Americans, Caribbean Islanders and others have to get in line or sneak in. It doesn't play well in those communities.

And Rubio isn't helped outside Little Havana by his continued support of America's controversial Cuban policy - trade embargo and restricted travel - that is increasingly seen as counterproductive from humanitarian, economic and geopolitical perspectives. He also opposed the Dream Act and supports English as the official language of the U.S. He didn't vote for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Then there's that party credit card flap; his self-serving, revisionist bio that pandered to hard-line, anti-Castro exiles; his suck-up signature on Grover Norquist's no-tax/no way pledge; his thumbs down on the fiscal cliff budget compromise; his rhetorical weaseling on creationism; and his votes against the Violence Against Women Act and the United Nations' treaty banning discrimination against people with disabilities. And more.

Vetting might seem more like hazing.

No, Marco Rubio may not be the Republican Party's presidential nominee in 2016, but it won't be because he joined a bipartisan Senate effort to forge a compromise alternative to the current immigration mess.

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