Marco Rubio’s Insider Problem

Published June 18, 2013

What was Marco Rubio sent to Washington to do? The concern among Rubio’s team of the rising chorus of “Marco’s gone Washington” shouldn’t surprise them considering his approach to the gamesmanship of typical Senatorial give and take. The problem is a simple one: Rubio was originally sold to the Republican base as not just a good speaker or an inspiring life story, but as a change agent, one of the few politicians who could actually move the country right. His acceptance of the Gang of Eight’s approach to wheeling and dealing their way to a 1,000+ page immigration measure – which invests more faith in government, skews its way toward more corporate interests, and which no one believes will solve the real long-term problems with our immigration system – is as typical Washington as it gets.

Does a change agent really say things like “I think 95, 96 percent of the bill is in perfect shape and ready to go.” And then refuse to say whether you would vote for that same bill if the border security portion remains unchanged? Of course not – unless, like Lindsey Graham, your entire rationale for supporting this legislation (indeed, any immigration legislation at all) is a blatant attempt at political pandering. This is what leads Bill Kristol to saythat “No legislation is better than this legislation.” It’s an acknowledgement that Rubio’s problem isn’t that he’s being a Senator, it’s that he’s breaking faith with the base on what type of Senator he was going to be. He’s altering the Rubio brand in a fundamental way.

Ryan Lizza has more: “The two biggest sticking points were wages for foreign workers (the unions wanted them to be higher) and the objections of the Building and Construction Trades union, which argues that plenty of Americans are looking for this kind of work. Rubio sided with the Chamber against the construction workers. ‘There are American workers who, for lack of a better term, can’t cut it,’ a Rubio aide told me. ‘There shouldn’t be a presumption that every American worker is a star performer. There are people who just can’t get it, can’t do it, don’t want to do it. And so you can’t obviously discuss that publicly.’ In the end, the wage issue was settled to the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s satisfaction, and the Building and Construction Trades union won a cap on the number of visas for foreign construction workers.”

“In the morning, [Schumer] called Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff, who was starting to have doubts about the Gang, and gave him the news. ‘You guys are kicking ass,’ McDonough said. … Schumer said [of Rubio], “He’s the real deal. He is smart, he is substantive. He knows when to compromise and when to hold. And he’s personable.’ An aide to Menendez said that, if the Gang were a group of high-school students, Rubio would be the cool jock and the captain of the football team, with whom everyone wanted to hang out. Schumer often found himself mediating disputes between Rubio and McCain, who felt that Rubio’s public statements sometimes positioned him positively with conservatives at the expense of the Gang. McCain would call Schumer and fume, “Look what Rubio’s doing!” I assume the frustrations from the Gang are that Rubio’s being insufficiently collegial, or not willing enough to ignore the concerns of the base. But that’s a difficult line to follow. 

Rubio’s favorable rating is, of course, still very high with Republicans. And I don’t expect passage of the immigration bill through the Senate to impact him all that much personally until he gets into the fray. Just keep in mind that we have seen Rubio treated largely with kid gloves in the course of his D.C. career: he hasn’t tried to do that much, he’s kept his head down, and picked his battles. This is the first issue where anyone’s bothered to throw a glancing punch his way, and it’s an opportunity to prove he doesn’t have a glass jaw. And it’s brought about a choice Rubio has to make: does he want to be a talented and effective Senator, besties with Schumer and McCain, or does he want to be a change agent who rejects the old Washington ways of thousand page bills, backroom deals and worker quotas in favor of asking the simple question: does this measure solve the real problem? And that’s entirely up to him.

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