Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was supposed to be the secret ingredient that finally got immigration reform passed. A Tea Party-backed Latino willing to compromise with Democrats and make the case to reluctant Republicans? He would succeed where so many others had failed.
Throughout the Senate legislative process, Rubio's every utterance was parsed for signs of momentum, as his rhetoric lurched between committed support and ready to jump ship. The perception was that his final stance, and his ability to lead Republicans, was what would ultimately make or break the bill.
But the perception was only that. Despite his regular touring of the conservative talk-show circuit, Rubio failed to win any high-profile support besides Bill O'Reilly. Rubio lost the early support of Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck is pledging to turn him out of office unless he abandons the bill.
Rubio also failed to impact the final inside game. His embrace of Sen. John Cornyn's border security amendment was rejected by the rest of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" that drafted the Senate bill. His suggestion that he might not vote for the final bill was publicly mocked by fellow Republican Lindsey Graham. And the final compromise amendment that clinched Senate passage was crafted by two other Republican senators without his help.
Rubio is now stuck with the worst of both political worlds. If immigration reform becomes law, Rubio won't get much credit from reform advocates, yet will still suffer plenty of blame from anti-immigration forces. And if it doesn't become law because of resistance from House conservatives, Rubio will have to explain why he couldn't make the sale.
However, Rubio does have time to change his circumstances. With the House Republicans now bristling at the Senate bill, there is no guarantee that the bill will reach the president's desk. What can Rubio do to change that?
Take the lead in debunking the lies circulating in anti-immigrant circles that are stoking conservative opposition.
Rubio took a stab at this in a Senate floor speech last week, rebutting various falsehoods, including the wild claim that the bill would let Obama's secretary of Homeland Security waive the border security requirements, or that a future Congress could withdraw the border security funding, or even that the bill provides government subsidies for people to buy scooters. "That is not true" was Rubio's repeated refrain.
But Rubio's debunking was overshadowed by his retorts to the personal criticisms he has suffered, defensively insisting that his involvement in the Gang of Eight "isn't about winning points from the establishment," "isn't about becoming a Washington dealmaker" and "isn't about gaining support for future office."
Just like you can't say "don't think of an elephant" without then thinking of an elephant, you can't claim you're not trying to win higher office without everyone thinking you're trying to win higher office.
Rubio should dust off himself, stop talking about himself, and get back on the conservative circuit. Show fellow conservatives how the attacks against the bill are pure nonsense. Prove they are disingenuously designed to obscure that conservatives won the "secure the border first" argument. Go right at the heart of anti-reform outrage and strip it of all legitimacy.
As reporter David Catanese observes, Rubio may not have won over many conservative talkers, but neither has he burned many bridges. More than anyone else in the Gang of Eight, Rubio gets a hearing from conservatives. If he can use what's left of his platform to quell right-wing ire and give Speaker John Boehner room to maneuver without suffering a Tea Party uprising, Rubio would have done the job he initially set out to do, and win some justly deserved credit.
Just in case he wants to gain support for some future office.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- China's leader is telling the People's Liberation Army to prepare for war
- The religious right isn't retreating — it's reforming
- How I lost all my money
- Diagnosing the Home Alone burglars' injuries: A professional weighs in
- How academia's liberal bias is killing social science
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Why Pakistan won't hunt down the terrorists within its borders
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- A brief history of the Christmas present
- Why the Sony hack changes everything
Subscribe to the Week