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Why Rubio Wins if Immigration Reform Loses

Politico has two new pieces about Marco Rubio's attempts to pass an immigration bill. The first story, by Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman, explains the risk Rubio faces of being labeled an "insider" for his work with the Gang of 8. The second story, by Manu Raju and Carrie Budoff-Brown, explains Rubio's attempts to distance himself from the Gang, largely for the reasons laid out in the first story. What neither story quite manages to do, however, is convince the reader that Rubio actually gains anything from having the bill pass.

The Burns/Haberman story concludes with an explanation of why Rubio wants a bill.

The ultimate judgment on that engagement will depend, of course, on whether a bill passes. For a first-term senator like Rubio, that outcome will do much to shape the party’s view of Rubio’s legislative abilities — as well as his preparedness for another, bigger job.Republican donors, most of whom back immigration reform, are watching his role closely for precisely that reason. “Right now people think Marco isn’t ready,” said one Republican donor, who spoke candidly on condition of anonymity. “That could change if he gets immigration done. But so far people aren’t impressed.”

Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry countered that whatever the complexities of Rubio’s decision to go all-in on immigration, it ought to remove any suspicion among his critics that the senator’s too green for national leadership. “As a new senator, I would think that if there were anywhere people would try to attack him, they might say: ‘What have you done?’” Curry said. “The guy has stuck his neck out, literally stuck his neck out on a big issue. It’s demonstrating leadership and I think it’s what people are looking for.” Curry added: “I think it helps him and I think it helps the Republican brand.”

Perhaps certain fundraisers in the Republican Party will not believe Rubio is "ready" if a bill fails to pass, but these sorts of calculations are almost always vastly overstated by the media three years before an election. Did the lack of legislative achievement hurt Obama's ability to get elected? Of course not. (Although you wouldn't know it from 2006 media commentary...) If Rubio seems like a good candidate, he will raise a lot of money, and get plenty of G.O.P. support. It's hard to imagine very many people making the decision to write a check based on whether John Boehner decides to put a Senate bill up for a vote. (Click here for a report on Boehner and the bill).

The last part of the quote, meanwhile, subtly confuses Rubio's interests with the rest of the Party's. I agree that it's in the G.O.P.'s interest to pass an immigration bill--although I can't believe the effect will be huge. We live in a two party, zero-sum system, and the bill will be signed by the other party's leader.

All of which leaves Rubio. Consider two scenarios: the first is that a bill limps out of the senate, John Boehner agrees to put it up for a vote in the House (where it barely passes), and Obama signs it. Rubio is then forced to run in a G.O.P. primary in 2016 as the man who shepherded Obama's "amnesty" through the senate. Good luck with that. Flip flopping, of the Mitt Romney variety, will be much harder once a bill has passed. In fact, the best reference is not Romney, but rather John McCain, who had little trouble morphing into Mr. "Build the Dang Fence" despite supporting Bush's immigration reform push. If that effort had succeeded, his path to the 2008 nomination would have been trickier.

The second scenario is that Rubio passes a bill through the senate, and it dies in the House. Not only, contra the Politico piece, does this not reflect anything about Rubio's political skill, but it also allows him more rhetorical space. He can easily blame the failure on the Obama administration ("the president wouldn't work with Republicans" etc.), and he can say to Hispanics in the general election, "I tried my best, and if I am president, I will bring Republicans along." (It's true that Bush couldn't, but people have short memories.) Moreover, Rubio has been vocal enough that he doesn't seem like a typical Republican restrictionist.

The best argument for Rubio wanting a bill to pass is that it "takes the issue off the table," in D.C. speak. But will it? The border will still be a subject of concern to immigration reform opponents, and the targets the bill sets for border security will prove to be a contentious subject going forward. Rubio is going to have to debate immigration one way or another. It's better to do so without Obama's biggest second term acheivement (which is what this bill would be in 2016) as an albatross around Rubio's neck.

Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @Ichotiner.