As much as I despise John Kasich’s notion that the president is some sort of national father, there is some historical precedent for the idea: Consider the nature of the monument they built to George Washington. Some people demand that a president not only share their values but act as a vessel of them, serving as a kind of moral mascot for the country or even a personification of it.
Not me. I just want to know what I can use him for.
Which brings us to Senator Marco Rubio. Some conservatives, including some whose opinions I respect, simply cannot forgive Rubio for his attempt to forge a bipartisan immigration deal with the so-called Gang of Eight. To be sure, the Gang of Eight bill was a bad one: Bad enough that Rubio later said if an identical bill were brought up in the future, he’d vote against it. But it isn’t just the bill: Some conservatives are mad that Rubio would attempt to cooperate with Democrats at all, that he’d be in the same room with Chuck Schumer. These are the conservatives who need their candidate to personify something, rather than to be of use.
I think Rubio could prove very useful.
Rubio was of course wildly wrong in that immigration debate, and he was pretty sneaky, too, as Mark Krikorian has argued. But if your worry is that President Rubio is going to sign an amnesty bill in March of 2017, you should worry about something else: Barring some dramatic and unforeseeable development, there’s going to be a Republican House next year, it’s going to be a conservative one backed up by a lot of conservatives in the Senate, and our hypothetical President Rubio is never going to sign that amnesty bill because Congress isn’t ever going to send it to him, even if he were so inclined – which I don’t think he is.
How did Rubio get it so wrong on immigration? Or, more precisely, why? You have to understand the job he was interviewing for – which wasn’t president.
There are a number of permanent and semi-permanent roles in American public life, for instance MLK Analogue, the job held for a long time by Jesse Jackson, which Al Sharpton expects to inherit. There’s Boss Woman, which was Gloria Steinem’s gig for years, and right around the time Ann Richards was interviewing for the position Mrs. Clinton swept in and took it. (As young women, and particularly young feminists, turn their backs on Herself in great numbers, that position may pass to Governor Richards’s daughter, Cecile, currently head of the Butchers’ Guild.) There’s the not-especially-desirable position of Go-To-Libertarian Guy (Senator Paul, in the family trade) and Evangelical Pope (Franklin Graham, with Mike Huckabee trying to set up his own Avignon operation, presumably at Fox News) and Mr. Anti-Trade (Donald Trump), etc. You can trace the decline of parts of American public life through who holds these jobs: From Martin Luther King Jr. to Al Sharpton? Hyperion to a satyr. From Susan B. Anthony to Herself? Chicken salad to chickens**t.
Marco Rubio was trying out for the role of Republican We Can Do Business With. It’s an interesting job, in a way. It’s a great deal less important than it once was, because it is a role that came into being during a time when Democrats dominated Congress and most of the federal agencies, and were expected to do so indefinitely. Eisenhower was a Republican We Can Do Business With, and so was Nelson Rockefeller. The conservative movement really became a true political force with the rise of Republicans We Can’t Do Business With: Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, etc. Democrats don’t run the show like they used to, and conservatives have been successful in pushing the GOP to the right, to such an extent that you can be pretty damned conservative – Rubio would have been a very, very conservative senator for 1980 – and still be the Republican We Can Do Business With.
But to be that guy, you have to do some business, and it has to be bipartisan business. Hence, John McCain reaching across for his daft unconstitutional campaign-finance “reform” bill that would have gutted the First Amendment had it stood. People sometimes talk about “lanes” in the presidential primary process: the Tea Party/insurgent lane, the Establishment lane, etc. Rubio pretty clearly calculated that if he could, without otherwise compromising his conservative credentials, be the Republican We Can Do Business With on one issue – one issue that happened to highlight the fact that he is a youthful Latino with an immigrant background – then he could occupy both those lanes. Add to that his oratorical gifts and you’ve got a pretty good candidate.
He did bad on the Gang of Eight, and he badly miscalculated how deeply Americans in general and conservatives in particular care about immigration. (And not just illegal immigration.) Some conservatives have just pronounced anathema on him: He’s dead to them. That’s excessive, an overreaction, but it is a political fact.
For those of us who remain alive to the possibilities of a President Rubio, the question is: To what uses could he be put? The first is preventing a second President Clinton or, angels and ministers of grace defend us, the inauguration of Comrade Muppet and His Glorious Socialist Revolution. Second: Immigration reform is still going to need to be done, and Rubio might just be beat up enough on the issue to get behind a robust, enforcement-first/citizenship-never program, designed with the assumption that you don’t have to deport 11 million illegals if you lock up a dozen meatpacking executives and hoteliers on immigration charges. Third: For pete’s sake, the guy’s a conservative, and a young, Latino conservative at that, from a modest background, who could sign a great deal of conservative legislation while being very difficult to caricature as Thurston Howell III.
Right about now, those who are not well-inclined toward Rubio are thinking: Yeah, Ted Cruz offers all the same things, plus he’s a better debater, and he didn’t try to cozy up with Chuck Schumer and stab us in the back for amnesty. This is true. The question, then, is: Do you think you can get across the line with Ted Cruz? I am by no means an expert in what makes a candidate “electable,” whatever that means, but I cannot help but like the prospects of Cruz up against Herself or (egad) Comrade Muppet. Cruz has been ferocious since winning Iowa – anybody else notice that his voice has dropped about half an octave? – and, while he’s acquitted himself well thus far when being attacked from the right, what he’s really used to is being attacked from the left, and Mrs. Clinton (again, or . . .!) with her record, faces a forensic meat-grinder.
My instinct is that Senator Rubio provides a better contrast to Mrs. Clinton, who after a long career as Dorian Gray is turning into the picture. He is only a few months younger than Cruz, but seems more youthful, and even when he is trying to be severe he is a ray of sunshine next to the sterner Cruz. (That isn’t a criticism of Senator Cruz, incidentally; a lot of us like him for that very quality.)
As I have argued for some time now, conservatives simply cannot seriously consider Trump, who isn’t a conservative. The real race is between Cruz and Rubio, and conservatives are asking themselves whether they can elect Cruz and whether they can trust Rubio. I wouldn’t say that I’m agnostic on the question (inasmuch as I believe the answer to both questions to be, “Yes . . . probably”) but I would say that we conservatives, and the country, would be lucky to have either outcome. We used to say that Mitt Romney is conservative but he isn’t a conservative, which is true enough. Both Cruz and Rubio are self-conscious conservatives in the sense that they are products of the conservative movement, in a way that no president has been since Ronald Reagan. (No, as much as I like George W. Bush, he was the product of something very different, as is his brother, who was a very good governor.) It’s a mystery to me that conservatives are so miserable at the moment, when they are presented with such a desirable choice.