WASHINGTON -- Conservative radio host Mark Levin was ranting about Republicans suddenly talking about immigration reform, voice dripping with disgust as he wondered, “How did this become the big issue after the election?”
Levin, who uses “amnesty” like a four-letter word, said on his Nov. 8 show that Republicans were “race pandering ... sound stupid and look stupid” and “surrendered to the left’s arguments and their agenda.”
So how did he react when Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio phoned in Wednesday to pitch his immigration ideas? “This is very fascinating to me,” Levin said, barely probing the concept, including how millions of illegal immigrants would someday be eligible to seek citizenship.
After Rubio hung up, Levin called him a “very, very impressive man.” As if realizing listeners were wondering if they were tuned to the wrong station, he said, “I still have a number of questions, but that’s for another day.”
Rubio had turned a lion into a lamb.
Since outlining the immigration “principles” two weeks ago, Rubio has brought the argument directly to prominent conservative media figures, from Sean Hannity to Bill O’Reilly.
Each time he scored an endorsement or Levin-like soft pedalling.
Rubio plays up enforcement measures as he laments a broken system that has allowed the number of illegal immigrants to climb past 11 million.
“We do have this issue, we have to confront and solve it in a responsible but pragmatic and humane way,” Rubio told Hannity
Hannity gushed that Rubio’s ideas were “probably the most thoughtful” he had heard. Said O’Reilly: “We all want fairness and I think your program is a good one.”
The reception for Rubio marks a significant turn for the GOP, eager to address its problem with Hispanic voters and dazzled by Rubio, a potential 2016 presidential candidate. Rubio stepped in to the fray at an opportune moment, riding an already changing tide.
It’s the next step in a complicated journey for Rubio, 41, who two years ago opposed the last attempt at immigration reform, which also would have allowed undocumented residents to work toward citizenship. During his U.S. Senate run, Rubio adopted views that were largely in line with the same voices he is now pulling to the middle.
“Rubio is making that bridge that needs to be built much shorter,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.
“He’s being a salesman and staking his own political position,” said Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, who has long pushed the GOP to tackle immigration. “Other Republicans are now saying the ice is thick enough to walk out on. That’s how you get progress.”
Dealing with amnesty
Rubio diffuses the “amnesty” question by emphasizing the steps he proposes undocumented immigrants would have to go through before getting in the back of the line to seek citizenship. They include admitting wrongdoing, paying fines, learning English and doing community service.
President Barack Obama has called for similar steps — a point ignored by Hannity and others — but Rubio provides the imprimatur of a conservative star. So while Levin said he had questions, he was not comfortable asking them.