Senator Marco Rubio’s immigration reform effort is in danger. It might seem like his presidential ambitions are in trouble, too. His numbers are down; Chris Christie, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz are starting to dominate the media’s discussion of 2016. In response, Rubio seems desperate to reestablish his conservative credentials, even by associating with a losing fight to defund Obamacare. That knee-jerk response calls Rubio’s political instincts into question, but his presidential chances are still alive, even if his immigration effort is on life support.
Rubio’s immigration bid probably hurt him on the right, but Rubio was never a natural fit to be the Tea Party candidate. He’s neither instinctually ultra-conservative nor a firebreather. Instead, Rubio has the classic profile of a mainline conservative: His policies represent the consensus of the Republican Party (other than immigration), and he has the temperament of a mainstream candidate. Put differently, he’s a lot more like George W. Bush or Paul Ryan than Rick Santorum or Michelle Bachman. And so long as Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, or whoever else sought the allegiance of the far right, there probably wouldn’t be space for someone with Rubio’s disposition.
But it’s not so bad to be left out of the Tea Party. Yeah, you’d rather be a Tea Party candidate than a dreaded moderate, but the optimum Republican presidential candidate is a mainline conservative—someone who’s conservative enough for the Tea Party, doesn’t scare away the establishment, and doesn’t alienate either the religious or business wing of the party. From there, the candidate either needs to build a critical mass of support within the party (the so-called invisible primary), or go out on the ground and convince voters in Iowa or New Hampshire (while hoping that no other candidate wins the invisible primary).
Such a candidate isn’t necessarily an obvious favorite in Iowa or the other caucus states but a mainline conservative with strong credentials on cultural issues and who can speak the language of the religious right could win Iowa. And after Iowa, you’d rather be a mainline conservative than a tea partier. New Hampshire, Florida, Michigan, and potentially South Carolina (if the religious right is satisfied on cultural issues), would all prefer a mainline conservative to a Tea Party candidate. History makes it clear that mainline Republicans tend to win the nomination.
So Marco Rubio’s positioning isn’t so bad. Immigration might weaken his appeal with a few Republicans, but it doesn’t look like it was a death blow. Rubio’s unfavorables aren’t very high, and John McCain came back from worse. And doing the bidding of the business-wing of the GOP is generally a pretty good idea—it’s probably the most important wing of the “invisible primary,” worth plenty of fundraising dollars. Conversely, Rubio’s stock would have taken a hit if he didn’t help advance immigration reform. It’s unclear whether Rubio ought to have taken a lead on immigration reform, especially in retrospect, but Rubio still has relatively broad appeal within the party.
And, for the moment, there isn’t another prominent, active Republican candidate with broad appeal throughout the party. For now, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz are best positioned to run as factional candidates. Perhaps one or all will broaden their appeal, especially Christie. They have time, but it hasn’t happened yet. Jeb Bush or Paul Ryan would have broad appeal, but it’s unclear whether they’ll run. Bobby Jindal, John Thune, Scott Walker, and Rob Portman could all run mainline campaigns, but they won’t win the invisible primary and their national electoral appeal is unproven, even compared to Rubio.
None of this means that Rubio is the favorite. I’m actually something of a Rubio pessimist. Not because of immigration reform, but because he’s an overrated, unconfident politician. His reactionary, short-sighted move on defunding Obamacare is only the latest confirmation of my suspicions. Scott Walker and Jeb Bush may be more talented politicians with equally sound “positioning,” should they decide to run. For the record, Walker's my favorite. But compared to Cruz, Christie, or Paul, Rubio’s remains well “positioned,” despite immigration reform, even if it’s unclear whether he can capitalize on his location in the center of the Republican Party.