Opinion

Marco Rubio's problem isn't gotcha stories. It's still immigration.

Conservatives are rushing to Rubio's defense over two New York Times articles. But will they stick around?

Conservatives have risen up in defense of Marco Rubio over two mini-scandals that appear to call his character into question. That's a good sign for Rubio's chances in the GOP primary. These little contretemps may help to create loyalty between the candidate and primary voters, who apparently aren't going to let Rubio pay for these supposed mistakes or indiscretions.

But if Rubio thinks a spat with the mainstream media will cause Republican voters to forget his past positions on immigration, well, he may be in for a surprise.

First was a silly report in The New York Times about his traffic violations. He had earned four in nearly two decades of driving around Florida. Politicians tend to be late and in a hurry, so Rubio probably rates better than average on this score. And the fact that the same report didn't uncover any uncouth workarounds that were made available to him because of his political life actually speaks well of him. His supporters tweeted jokingly about Rubio going on rampages of trivial offenses, with the hashtag #RubioCrimeSpree.

The second story, about his personal finances, is a bit more complicated. Rubio has made a campaign virtue of the fact that debt — including college debt — has occasionally crimped his family budget. He admitted forthrightly in his biography that he was a sloppy accountant. The Times reported on his missteps but dropped in some facts that would make you question Rubio's judgment. He was unusually bad at saving from his income. He even liquidated a retirement account, presumably at huge expense, to cover expenses. He also, after receiving a huge contract for his book, bought an $80,000 boat.

Conservatives downplayed it as a #MarcoBoat, and pointed out that $80,000 is a tiny fraction of the six- and seven-figure conflicts of interest that populate stories about Hillary Clinton.

But I noticed that it was flogged a bit by immigration hawks like Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin. It's a reminder that Rubio's problem may not be his character, but his position on immigration reform. The hardcore immigration hawks in the Republican Party have not bought into the image Rubio is trying to sell, of a politician who was chastened by his failure in securing comprehensive reform. And that can cost him.

Mitt Romney neutralized Rick Perry on this exact issue four years ago, saying that Perry had created magnets for illegal immigrants by providing their children with in-state tuition. He baited Perry into repeating the liberal's criticism of immigration hawks, with Perry claiming that they "don't have a heart." More than anything — even the "oops" moment — this is what brought down Perry's campaign.

Ann Coulter's book Adios America! contains blistering arguments against Rubio's preferred immigration policies, including the numbers and rhetoric he has used to sell it. While lots of people claim that the polling on immigration is ambiguous, sometimes the results surprise. A 2007 California Field poll stated the question in the most provocative way possible: Would you prefer a policy of "having federal immigration agents round up, detain, and deport immigrants found to be living here illegally?" The "yes" camp scored 46 percent, and the "no" answer won 43 percent.

It should be said that no politician supports this policy for dealing with the country's more than 10 million illegal immigrants.

Coulter's arguments include shocking numbers that indicate those on a path to citizenship wouldn't be net contributors on income taxes, but would become eligible for federal aid and assistance:

[A] more detailed breakdown of the costs and benefits shows that college-educated Americans pay an average of $29,000 more in taxes every year than they get back in government services, according to an analysis by the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector. By contrast, legal immigrants, on average, get back $4,344 more in government services than they pay in taxes. Those with only a high school degree net about $14,642 in government payments, and those without a high school degree collect a whopping $36,993.27. Contrary to the claims of Sen. Chuck Schumer's press secretary, Marco Rubio, making illegal aliens citizens will not result in the U.S. Treasury being deluged with their tax payments. The vast majority of illegal aliens — about 75 percent — have only a high school diploma or less, so legalization means they will immediately begin collecting an average of $14,642–$36,993 per year from the U.S. taxpayer. [Adios, America!]

You may say, I don't trust those numbers, because Ann Coulter is using them. But how would GOP voters feel about them? Do you think that if Ted Cruz's campaign started flagging, he wouldn't try to do to Rubio what Romney did to Perry?

In a primary race crowded with so many candidates, conservative voters are going to get mighty picky about their champion. And this is an issue that can cost deviationists a lot. If Cruz or any other candidate chooses to do so, they can make Rubio pay much more dearly for immigration than for four traffic tickets — or even a nice boat.

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