Can Marco Rubio win back the Republican base?

After falling from grace over immigration, the senator is threatening to shut down the government

Marco Rubio
(Image credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) is on a mission to convince Republican voters that, despite his full-throated embrace of immigration reform, he's still a diehard conservative.

On Monday, Rubio kicked off a short tour around Florida to tout his support for a Republican-led effort to shut down the government if Congress does not repeal ObamaCare. A handful of conservative, Tea Party-aligned senators — including Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Mike Lee (Utah) — have urged their caucus to block a continuing resolution to fund the government to stop ObamaCare from going into effect and to pressure Obama to scrap the law entirely.

The practical benefit of such a move is dubious. A nonpartisan government report concluded that a shutdown would not actually prevent the Affordable Care Act from taking hold, in part because the law already set aside billions of dollars in non-discretionary funds for its implementation. And Obama, even if faced with a government shutdown, assuredly wouldn't agree to dumping his signature policy achievement to strike a spending deal.

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The political benefits, at least for the party as a whole, are close to zero. Just ask former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who forced a government shutdown in 1995 only to face the wrath of voters. Here's Ramesh Ponnuru on that episode of history:

Democrats thought that they had won the battle over the shutdowns, and that the agreement to end them was a Republican surrender. Clinton made a point, in his next State of the Union address, to criticize Republicans for their strategy. It was an applause line. Clinton’s job-approval numbers started to rise as soon as the shutdown fight was over, and they never really sank again. [Bloomberg]

Yet the personal political benefit, as Rubio sees it, could be great.

"There's a lot of grassroots support for this position," Alex Conant, Rubio's spokesman, told National Journal. "You've seen most of the conservative organizations supporting this, as well as leading conservatives outside of Congress saying that this is the right approach."

Rubio took a sizable hit from the right for spearheading the Senate's landmark immigration overhaul. A Washington Post/ABC News poll in June found that his net favorability among Republican voters had fallen by 18 percentage points over the course of the year. A Rasmussen survey similarly showed his net support among the party base dropping by 16 percentage points between May and June of this year, just as the Senate finalized and ultimately passed its immigration bill.

Republicans have continued to hold symbolic votes in the House to defund or eliminate the ACA. By drawing a line in the sand in the Senate over the law's funding, Rubio hopes that he, too, can prove his conservative bona fides ahead of 2016, when he will possibly make a White House bid.

However, some of Rubio's fellow Republicans think the shutdown threat is simply crazy talk. Several party leaders like Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) have come out against the idea, while Peter Wehner, an alum of the Reagan administration and both Bush administrations, blasted it as "silly and a bit too self-congratulatory" in a recent article in Commentary. Wehner, in particular, skewered Rubio's recent contention "that that you cannot say you are against ObamaCare if you are willing to vote for a law that funds it."

And based on the Rubio argument, why doesn't he demand the House of Representatives pass an amendment to the continuing resolution that (just for starters) nationalizes school choice and shifts Medicare to a premium support plan — and then say that if President Obama and Senate Democrats don't sign the GOP wish list into law, Republicans are willing to shut down the federal government until they do? Why not threaten to shut down the federal government unless Obama agrees to the Ryan budget? Or does the Florida senator not have the courage of his conservative convictions? [Commentary]

Wehner concluded, "It’s up to Mr. Rubio if he wants to be part of the Suicide Caucus. But he shouldn’t blame others who decline to join him."

Indeed, Rubio's all-or-nothing stance on ObamaCare raises questions about what kind of Republican he wants to be. After positioning himself so squarely in the moderate wing of the party with the immigration bill, it's jarring to see him swing toward the most extreme position on ObamaCare, sharing a space occupied by conservative firebrands like Cruz who have earned the quiet enmity of GOP elders.

As Jill Lawrence at National Journal wrote, "Rubio may be sowing confusion about his political identity as he heads toward a widely expected run for president in 2016":

Would he be an establishment contender, along the lines of a Chris Christie, Scott Walker, or Jeb Bush, or an insurgent like Paul or Cruz? "It appears right now as if the path is not clear for Rubio. And sometimes if one foot is in each camp, neither camp adopts you as their own," says University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala, an expert on the state's first-in-the-nation primary. [National Journal]

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