It’s a rare day when Rush Limbaugh and Peggy Noonan are on the same page both in style and substance.
But that’s exactly what happened last month, judging by their reactions to a speech on the Senate floor. Limbaugh called it “the most powerful anti-communism speech since Ronald Reagan.
“A great, myth-destroying statement,” Noonan opined.
Other conservative commentators were quick to sing their praises. And now a rumor is being spread around the Beltway and passed on by some journalists and talk radio: Marco Rubio is back.
The universal praise for Senator Rubio’s speech against the Cuban regime was enough for him to be labeled “Winner of the Week” in Florida politics by Adam Smith, leading political editor of the Tampa Bay Times. After his performance during the immigration debate, Smith wrote, the erstwhile rising GOP star looked like a flash in the pan.
“Now,” Smith wrote, “after high-profile denunciations of repression by Venezuelan leaders, Rubio reminds many opinion leaders on the right that he remains the most inspiring orator among the potential 2016 GOP contenders.”
It’s called the invisible primary—the contest to win over the party officials and the chattering elite before a single vote is cast for the nominating contest. If you hope to win Iowa, it would be great to have the endorsement of their popular governor and the full weight of his political machine behind you. If your poll numbers are sagging because of a challenge with a key demographic, there are television personalities or talk show hosts who can vouch for you.
A kind word from Charles Krauthammer can earn a candidate a second look from foreign policy conservatives. Pat Robertson or Mike Huckabee can persuade large numbers of social conservatives to rally around you. And Rush Limbaugh, sometimes referred to by Democrats as the head of the Republican party, commands a weekly audience of some 30 million conservative Republicans. His listeners hang onto his every word…and turn out for the nominating contests.
That’s why in the summer of 2013 Rubio appeared on Limbaugh’s show to win him over to his immigration plan. The bipartisan “Gang of Eight” legislation to overhaul America’s immigration system was still evolving in committee, but it was already under attack by the GOP base as being amnesty for illegal immigrants. Rubio moved swiftly to put out the fire.
“What you have to understand is that what we have now in this country is de facto amnesty,” Rubio told Limbaugh. His plan was the opposite of forgiveness—he would make the undocumented people pay a fine, get to the back of the line and eventually be able to obtain legal status barring any criminal convictions. The Democrats, he said, were hoping to be able to use immigration as a weapon to hammer the GOP with in the election cycles to come. “They can try to sell that, but I doubt people are going to buy it. Because the reality of it is we have put something that is very common sense and reasonable.”
And it seemed as if the charm offensive had worked. His performance won him plaudits from Limbaugh, who told his listeners that the senator was going about the issue exactly the right way. “Is this guy good or what?”
But that was then.
The early days of the spring of 2013 must have been the height of Marcomania, when conservative columnists George Will and Charles Krauthammer were already pushing him as the GOP frontrunner and TIME Magazine was running covers calling Rubio “The Republican Savior.” “There is only one Savior, and I am not Him#Jesus.” Rubio tweeted adroitly in response. As a rule of thumb in American politics, if you’re having to beat back comparisons to the Messiah, your political career is alive and well.
But if it takes months or years to cultivate the reputation as the Tea Party’s darling, it only takes one committee vote to destroy it. After President Obama’s massive wins among the Latino demographic, which accounted for his margins in Florida, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada, the Republican elite and even much of their base was open to a discussion on immigration reform, at least in the abstract. At the very least, most GOP leaders wanted to neutralize the immigration before the most rapidly growing demographic group was lost to the GOP for perhaps a generation.
But it’s one thing to support the abstract idea of reform, and quite another to get behind a piece of compromise legislation that includes priorities for Democrats. The Tea Party was aghast at what the eight Republicans and Democrats in the Senate had come up with while crafting the legislation. The legislation did promise to secure the border “practically militarizes the border!” Republican Lindsey Graham rhapsodized. But it also included a pathway to citizenship for the eleven million people here illegally, which made it amnesty to the Tea Party faithful.
On June 27, 2013, fourteen Republican senators joined a unanimous Democratic caucus to pass the bill. For these polarized times, that’s a jaw-dropping number. But the thirteen GOPers Rubio managed to corral weren’t enough to provide any political cover. Sarah Palin led the charge, calling him a disappointment and floating the idea of a possible primary challenge. That very weekend, hundreds of Tea Party protesters converged near the White House lawn, chanting “Primary Rubio!” and waving signs to denounce amnesty.
By November, both Limbaugh and Hannity had turned against Rubio’s immigration work. Of all his critics, Sean Hannity was probably the kindest.
“I do believe he had good intentions,” Hannity said of Rubio. “But you can’t trust the president to enforce this.”
The denunciation of immigration reform efforts by the right managed to kill the bill’s chances in the House. Speaker Boehner won’t even bring the bill up for a vote—probably because he knows that just enough Republicans would join the Democrats to send the bill to Obama’s desk. “The last thing we need,” he declared in July, “is another Obamacare-style bill.” What he meant by “Obamacare-style” is unclear. Does he think Obamacare was passed with a strong bipartisan vote in the Senate and supported by a wide majority of the American public and business interests?
Whatever his reasons, John Boehner’s decision meant Marco Rubio took a bullet for nothing. The bill has become so toxic on the right that Rubio himself felt the need, humiliatingly, to essentiall call for the House to defeat his own bill. In October, he signaled a preference for the House to begin work on piecemeal solutions, leaving his spokesperson with the tortured task of explaining how his reversal wasn’t a flip flop, but a recognition of political reality.
It’s been a disastrous 2013 for the senator. Once you’ve been tagged as pro-amnesty, it’s a long, hard slog back to the party’s good graces. That’s why Rubio, the former Republican savior, is now seen as more of a Judas figure by the party base.
So is there a path to redemption for the man who could have been a “savior”? Maybe. Rubio is polling at about 3 percent in Iowa where he once led all of his potential challengers in polls. The state serves as a good snapshot illustrating his collapse, but he’s got over a year to mend fences.
And being pro-amnesty wasn’t fatal to John McCain in 2008. Like Rubio, he championed a failed immigration reform bill, and saw his own numbers come down to earth in the summer of 2007 as a result.
Rubio will have to hope that come 2016 the national conversation is focused on foreign policy, to Rand Paul’s detriment. And he will need to have the Republican establishment rally around him. Should Jeb Bush choose not to run, he will most likely endorse his former mentor and serve as a valuable ambassador to for Rubio’s campaign as he works for the support of other GOP heavyweights.
In the meantime, Rubio will have to be on his best behavior during this time of probation. All GOP presidential candidates are kept on a short leash: the Tea Party is an unforgiving master. But for Rubio especially, there can’t be any deviations from the party orthodoxy. In the months ahead, look to see him take the initiative in attacking Obamacare, blasting the IRS in speeches, hitting the campaign trail for 2014 candidates like any Republican in good standing, and most of all using his own rhetorical gifts to push his views of American exceptionalism and a bolder US foreign policy.
It still might not be enough. But if these coming months lead to a Rubio Resurrection, mark your calendars for his Feb. 27 Senate speech as the day Marco got his groove back.
William Dahl is a recent graduate of The College of William and Mary, where he majored in Government and studied abroad in La Plata, Argentina. He has worked for community foundations in Argentina and Miami dedicated to community engagement and prosecution for human rights abuses. A native Virginian, he moved to Baltimore in 2013 to join a financial research firm, where he enjoys being able to write on the side.