Marc Caputo: Misunderstanding Marco Rubio: immigration politics and DC spin

04/07/2013 6:03 PM

04/07/2013 6:27 PM

The request from the liberal Campaign to Reform Immigration for America was simple — but strange.

“Ask Marco Rubio to support a pathway to citizenship,” a caller from the group said.

Huh?

“Marco Rubio already supports a pathway to citizenship,” I said when I answered my home phone Wednesday. “I don’t understand.”

“He doesn’t support a pathway to citizenship,” the caller shot back.

Me: “Umm, yes he does.”

Caller: “No. He only supports a system of temporary work permits…”

Me: “I really think you have your facts wrong. Where are you getting them?”

The caller hung up.

Count this little back and forth as one of the myriad examples of why immigration reform might not pass Congress despite a strong bipartisan push.

The interest groups on the right and the left might spread just enough propaganda, just enough falsehoods, just enough passion to make immigration reform just another partisan issue.

If immigration reform dies, then activist groups on all sides of the political spectrum live to fight again. In Washington, there can be a perverse disincentive for a real resolution.

And for some in the Beltway, there’s a disincentive to understand what Rubio’s about. Some unwittingly don’t understand Rubio, or they intentionally don’t understand him.

In the case of the DC-based Campaign to Reform Immigration for America, spokesman Jeff Parcher said the caller who phoned my house went “off script.” She misspoke. The campaign wants more action from Rubio, a member of the bipartisan Senate group nicknamed the Gang of Eight, Parcher said, adding that the callers would be “retrained.”

Still, the fact that an activist with the campaign got it so wrong speaks volumes about how a politician can be transmogrified by people with an agenda.

It’s also noteworthy that the caller wanted to speak to the Democratic female in my household, my wife (not me, a male independent). This is politics.

Liberals and left-leaning immigration groups have increasingly grown concerned with Rubio over the past few weeks. The Republican has enjoyed favorable coverage on TV and magazines like Time. And he looks like he’s getting his way.

Activists buzzed with alarm on Easter Sunday when Rubio issued a press statement noting there’s “no agreement on immigration legislation yet.’’

It was perhaps the most common-sense statement of the day. But it became the grist of news stories, blogs and misrepresentations.

One activist wrote on the America’s Voices immigration-reform website and in emails that Rubio was essentially discounting news of a deal between labor unions and big business over a guest-worker permit program.

Rubio wasn’t reacting to that at all.

“I’m encouraged by reports of an agreement between business groups and unions on the issue of guest workers,’’ Rubio said at the time in a comment that seemed to go unnoticed.

“However,” Rubio continued, “reports that the bipartisan group of eight senators have agreed on a legislative proposal are premature.”

Rubio also called for a deliberate and open hearing process in the Senate.

That understandably riled advocates. When a politician calls for a deliberate and open debate in a do-nothing Senate after months of secret meetings, it’s going to raise hackles.

On a more basic level, Rubio’s no-agreement-yet statement was an exercise in expectations management. And it ensured Rubio would overshadow the Sunday talk shows even without appearing on them.

The no-agreement-yet statement was ready-made news, partly because immigration-reform advocates had been spreading the word for days before that Rubio was slowing things down behind the scenes.

His statement therefore ran head-first into an emerging narrative in the DC press and blogosphere. The questions about Rubio building himself “exit ramps” and ways out of the deal boiled over.

The reports gave short shrift to the fact that Rubio built in those exits from the start. He has said from the beginning that he wouldn’t back final legislation that failed to adequately address border-security, a guest-worker permit program and the future flow of immigrants.

And Rubio has compromised, or flip flopped or evolved (pick your phrase) by agreeing to support a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people in this country unlawfully.

Rubio once called a citizenship-path “amnesty.” Now it’s central to the bill, albeit the path is about 13 years long and that’s too much for some liberals.

Rubio, who has far more credibility with hardcore conservatives than most other GOP senators, is probably crucial to the bill’s survival if it makes it to the conservative House, where fellow Miamian, Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, has been a point man on a bipartisan group working up its own plans.

“Immigration reform is alive and kicking because Sen. Marco Rubio was there at conception. It will likely die if Rubio bolts in the end,” Politico aptly noted in a piece titled “What Marco Rubio is thinking.”

By and large, Politico got it right except this: “Rubio’s view has evolved from believing that he needed passage in order to be able to display a substantive accomplishment, to believing he will get credit for trying so aggressively.”

No such evolution is apparent. That’s not what Rubio is thinking or has thought.

When he was Florida House speaker, Rubio repeatedly showed he was willing to buck the common wisdom and walk away from major deals — notably property-tax cuts — if they didn’t meet his standards. He had a knack for putting himself in a winning position by losing on issues.

There’s also a belief that Rubio is skittish and scared of the right wing. That’s tough to see. He has a hard right voting record in Congress (He was one of seven senators to get a perfect score in 2012 from the American Conservative Union ). And the 2016 presidential campaign is many political lifetimes away, and there’s no guarantee Rubio will run for the White House.

Now, immigration reform advocates are accusing Rubio of “posturing” for political gain.

Of course he is.

But everyone’s posturing in the immigration debate.

President Obama’s Organizing for Action plans to target Rubio’s office in Orlando this week. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, not a member of the Gang of Eight, gets a pass.

A coalition of immigration-reform groups held a Saturday rally in Miami. One liberal activist Tweeted a picture of a woman with a “Rubio Di Que Si!” sign. No sign of “Nelson Just Say Yes!”

Chances are, Rubio couldn’t ask for better opposition.

The more liberals make phone calls and signs calling him out, the more he can say to the right that he’s being persecuted for being a conservative or that he’s holding firm to his beliefs.

And the more he can stay in the spotlight.

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