The current intramural battle over immigration policy among GOP 2016 hopefuls, a most welcome and most necessary controversy, is a useful example of why the Senate is such a tough place from which to run for president. Few senators make it — only John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama in the last 60 years — and only after short Capitol Hill stints that yield thin voting records.
The reason is clear: To be a good legislator and to move public opinion on important issues, a senator sometimes must make proposals that, taken out of context, can distort the senator’s overarching position, creating the illusion that he favors what he clearly opposes, and vice versa.
Cruz has cast himself as the Republican field’s most consistent voice against “amnesty” for illegal aliens. Yet Rubio, with an assist from former Senator Rick Santorum, claims that Cruz has actually advocated granting legal status to illegal aliens.
Taken out of context, the charge seems colorable. But under the circumstances as they actually occurred, the proposal Cruz made was a case of intelligent legislating designed to expose the fraudulence of the pro-amnesty position. It was, in this way, reminiscent of smart legislating by Rubio (and, for that matter, by Cruz) that highlighted the folly of President Obama’s Iran deal.
Let’s set the scene. In early 2013, Rubio joined with “progressive” Republicans and hard-left Democrats including Senator Chuck Schumer to craft the infamous “Gang of Eight” immigration legislation supported by the Obama White House. That deal, as Mickey Kaus pointed out at the time in a piece aptly called “The Rubio Con,” would have granted an immediate, unconditional amnesty to the then-estimated 11 to 12 million foreigners illegally present in the United States. (See also Mark Krikorian, Heather Mac Donald, and the editors of National Review.) It would, moreover, have established a “pathway to citizenship” for these illegal aliens pending some farcical border-enforcement measures. Rubio, Schumer, and the other proponents framed the proposal as a humanitarian effort to bring people “out of the shadows.”
Conservatives in the Republican base zealously opposed Rubio’s proposal. Most salient for present purposes was their contention that the high-minded rhetoric about humanitarian concerns was so much hot air. It was camouflage, conservatives argued, for what the Left really wanted, which was millions of new Democratic voters — enough to give the party a permanent majority (or at least as permanent as anything ever is in politics). This stealth goal hinged on the pathway to citizenship. (I won’t get into the different bad reasons that explain Republican-establishment support for immigration “reform”; for present purposes, they are beside the point.)
Cruz’s objective was to illustrate the fraudulence of the ‘out of the shadows’ blather from the Gang of Eight.
Against that background, Senator Cruz, who was a vigorous opponent of the Gang of Eight bill, proposed an amendment that would have stripped the possibility of a path to citizenship from the grant of legal status. The point of the proposal was not to grant a form of legal status to the illegal aliens — they were already to be granted legal status by the Rubio-Schumer legislation.
Cruz’s objective was to illustrate the fraudulence of the “out of the shadows” blather. Obviously, if the Gang of Eight had been sincere, a grant of limited legal status would have accomplished their purported humanitarian objective. But Cruz knew the Left would bitterly object, revealing that the true “comprehensive immigration reform” agenda was to mint new Democratic voters.
Indeed, Cruz made clear in proposing his amendment that the Gang of Eight would betray millions of legal immigrants who sought U.S. citizenship properly and that it therefore undermined the rule of law. And as the amnesty-friendly Huffington Post reported at the time, the point of Cruz’s amendment was to “take away one of [the Gang of Eight bill’s] central purposes: giving a pathway to citizenship to 11 million undocumented immigrants.”
It is thus remarkable to find Rubio, of all people, depicting Cruz as an amnesty supporter because of Cruz’s attempt to expose the Democratic agenda that Rubio, whether out of naïveté or opportunism, was then promoting.
Let’s compare the legislative battle over the Iran deal.
To his credit, Rubio, like Cruz, was a staunch opponent of President Obama’s agreement to provide over $100 billion to the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism while rendering that regime a threshold nuclear power. Yet, in a manner reminiscent of the Gang of Eight, senior Beltway Republicans joined the Obama Left in crafting the so-called Corker-Cardin legislation, a bill that would prevent Congress from rejecting the deal.
So Rubio, like Cruz, proposed amendments in an effort to blow up the deal. Rubio, for example, proposed that any agreement require Iran’s leaders to accept Israel’s right to exist. Rubio well knew this poison pill had no chance of being adopted. But he was not trying to improve the Iran deal. Rubio was, as Time magazine observed, trying to kill the Iran deal.
Rubio knows that his support for comprehensive immigration reform that granted unconditional amnesty is his greatest vulnerability in the quest for the GOP nomination.
Now, using the logic of Rubio’s “amnesty” attack on Cruz, one could argue that, if the deal satisfied the condition that Iran acknowledge the Jewish state’s legitimate existence, Rubio would support it — despite the agreement’s material support to terrorism and facilitation of Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs. That, however, would be a smear.
Rubio aggressively opposed the Iran deal. His objective in proposing the futile amendment was not to win the volley, it was to win the match. Obama and his fellow Democrats were rationalizing support for the deal with claims that Iran was trustworthy and that the deal would promote regional stability. Rubio’s amendment was a shrewd legislative gambit to illustrate that this was absurd.
He wasn’t trying to get the amendment approved; he was trying to drive a wedge between Obama and Democrats who pose as Israel supporters. He was trying to undermine the deal. It didn’t work, but it was smart — and it was effective in the sense that it could help the next president take a different tack with the mullahs.
Let’s also consider Rubio’s opposition to abortion. The senator opposes abortion in principle because he believes that life begins at conception. Yet he has endorsed anti-abortion legislation that would carve out exceptions for cases of rape and incest.
Should we thus conclude that Rubio is, on this matter, an unprincipled hypocrite? That he is “pro-abortion” in cases of rape and incest? Only if our business is slander.
Rubio is anti-abortion in all instances, and his objective is to prevent as many abortions as possible. He is willing to abide abortions in cases of rape and incest because, without those exceptions, there is no current political possibility of getting anti-abortion legislation enacted. The number of abortions attributable to rape and incest is minuscule compared with abortions overall. So Rubio calculates that it is best to do what can be done in the current climate to outlaw the vast majority of abortions. He knows that nothing prevents him from moving against other abortions if the political conditions shift in favor of the pure pro-life position.
Unfortunately, Rubio’s support for comprehensive immigration reform that granted unconditional amnesty was anything but smart. He knows it is his greatest vulnerability in the quest for the GOP nomination. Not surprisingly, he insists that he is chastened, that he will not make the same mistakes again. Is Rubio playing it straight? Time will tell.
He is not off to a promising start, though, if he doesn’t perceive much daylight between his own enthusiastic support for amnesty and Ted Cruz’s opposition.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a policy fellow at the National Review Institute. His latest book is Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment.