It has been apparent for some time that Marco Rubio's political skills are less impressive than most people assumed several years ago. During the government shutdown/debt ceiling debacle he was either invisible or confused, ricocheting between extremism and quiet moderation, but at all times appearing like a man who didn't know what to do. In one corner, the business community. In another corner, Tea Party activists who will vote in a 2016 Republican primary. The result: flailing. But budget issues have never been nearly as complex for Rubio as immigration reform, which might be the issue that dooms his chances in three years.
It never made the smallest bit of sense why Rubio got behind a comprehensive immigration bill in the Senate that is nearly identical to what President Obama supports. And now, as confirmation that Rubio went down the wrong road, he has decided to distance himself from the bill. Politico reports: "Other prominent immigration supporters like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have also backed off any deal, saying the Obama administration has 'undermined' negotiations by not defunding his signature health care law." As Jon Chait notes, this doesn't make any sense. But on Saturday Rubio went even farther. Breitbart has the story:
A spokesman for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a member of the Senate’s “Gang of Eight,” told Breitbart News exclusively on Saturday that the House should not pass individual piecemeal immigration bills in a “ruse” to get to a conference committee that would result in a comprehensive immigration bill.
“At this point, the most realistic way to make progress on immigration would be through a series of individual bills,” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said in an email. “Any effort to use a limited bill as a ruse to trigger a conference that would then produce a comprehensive bill would be counterproductive. Furthermore, any such effort would fail, because any single senator can and will block conference unless such conference is specifically instructed to limit the conference to only the issue dealt with in the underlying bill.”
It's hard to decipher precisely what this means (and, as Mickey Kaus points out, Rubio has not been particularly forthcoming about his actual intentions regarding immigration). But since the House is very unlikely to simply pass a large immigration bill, the remaining strategy is the approach that Rubio's spokesman disparages above. For all practical purposes, then, Rubio now opposes comprehensive immigration reform.
This leads to the larger question of what exactly Rubio was thinking when he decided to support the Senate bill in the first place. I have argued previously that it was political suicide for him to get behind the comprehensive approach: if such a bill had passed, Rubio would have been tarred as the most visible supporter of Obama's biggest second term achievement. (Good luck running on that.) And if it fails, as now appears likely, what did he gain by pissing off a bunch of the voters he will need for 2016?
Rubio could argue, in his defense, that he didn't realize the debate over immigration would drag on, or he didn't think that Obama would continue to be so toxic to GOP primary voters. But neither reality took a crystal ball to predict, which is why Rubio's political acumen is in serious question. He has work to do to gain conservative support, and moderates are sure to be wary of his constant flip-flopping. Ann Coulter may have forgiven him, but don't expect voters to be so generous.