Marco Rubio’s less than superb behavior in the immigration debate

Peter Wehner argues that Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan have handled themselves “superbly” during the immigration reform debate, in the face “vitriol” from conservatives. And he denounces attempts by conservatives to “excommunicate” Rubio and Ryan from the movement over their stance on immigration which, after all, is a matter upon which reasonable conservatives can disagree.

I have great respect for Pete, but strongly disagree with his assessment of Rubio’s conduct (though not Ryan’s, to date) during the immigration debate.

In fact, it was Rubio and his staff that first tried to excommunicate conservatives over immigration reform. Back in February, the Washington Post reported that Team Rubio was pushing the view that certain major opponents of amnesty, such as the Center for Immigration Studies, aren’t conservative at all. According to this theme, the opposition of such groups is founded on a desire to limit population growth, not just by limiting immigration but also through liberal rules on abortion.

Questioned about this by the Post, Rubio’s main spokesman said the senator “has argued that some groups that oppose legal immigration should not be considered part of the conservative coalition.” That sounds like excommunication.

The “vitriol” I have directed at Rubio dates from this report, and the Senator’s subsequent failure to walk it back. Given the chance to do so, Team Rubio came up with these weasel words: “We are not focused on these groups whatsoever; our focus is on passing an immigration reform plan that secures the border and modernizes our legal immigration system.” That sounds like hit-and-run.

Rubio’s subsequent dishonesty (some of which is collected here) increased my disgust with the Senator. But I have never attempted to “excommunicate” him. My view is that reasonable conservatives can reach opposite conclusions on the merits of Rubio’s legislation and on the issue of amnesty itself.

At times, I have noted that certain pro-amnesty arguments are in tension with core teachings of conservatism. This is a normal and legitimate form of argumentation.

Moreover, Rubio himself has acknowledged a tension between his legislation and conservative lack of faith in the efficacy and trustworthiness of big government. Unfortunately, he has failed to bridge this gap.

I don’t doubt that some conservatives have tried to excommunicate Rubio over immigration, just as Rubio tried to excommunicate some conservatives. But I suspect that Pete’s real concern is more precisely expressed not in terms of “excommunication,” but rather as he expresses it in the final paragraph of his post — that conservatives will “turn on [Rubio and Ryan] with a vengeance.” If they do, he writes, “it will be far more of an indictment of [these] critics than it will be an indictment of Rubio and Ryan.”

Pete may have the 2016 campaign season in mind. If so, I think it would be difficult to indict conservatives who strongly oppose the immigration reform legislation Rubio proposed and tirelessly promoted for strongly opposing a Rubio candidacy for the presidency. Not only is immigration reform now Rubio’s signature issue, it is an issue of tremendous importance, as both sides of the debate agree.

There will be other issues in the next presidential campaign, of course. But it’s very likely that there will be other candidates who take basically the same positions on these matters as Rubio (assuming the Senator runs). And given the gap between Rubio’s position on immigration reform during the 2010 Senate race and his current position, there will be good reason to doubt the sincerity of any position he takes in 2015-16.

To be frank, if you remove immigration reform from the Rubio equation, you don’t have much more than a first-term Senator with a pretty face, a gift for conservative-sounding oratory, and a good (but not completely true) personal story.

That’s not a bad start. But it shouldn’t be enough to cause conservatives who believe Rubio is performing a disservice on the vital issue of immigration to pull their punches if Rubio runs for president.

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