Marco Rubio could have been the candidate of working-class conservative reformism, but he threw it all away. Since 2008, conservative policy analysts have argued that the GOP’s 1980s policy agenda was obsolete and that new policies were needed to address the problems of the middle class and the struggling. Rubio, more than any other 2016 candidates, adopted those ideas, but his immigration-policy errors discredited him.
In Florida, Rubio won the Republican nomination for senator over the better funded and establishment-backed Charlie Crist because he was able to argue (persuasively and correctly) that Crist was a pure opportunist. Rubio’s flip-flop on upfront legalization for unauthorized immigrants damaged his image as a conviction politician. Immigration is the issue that most bitterly divides GOP elites from Republican voters, and so Rubio going over to the side of the donors and the lobbyists damaged his image as a populist.
Also, Rubio flip-flopped to some very unpopular positions. The Gang of Eight immigration bill that he supported would have sharply increased future low-skill immigration. This bill was sold as a political necessity but, depending on the poll, only 15 to 21 percent of Americans favor increasing immigration. At the level of the voter, Democrats, Republicans, and independents agree on favoring future immigration based on skills and English proficiency, and yet Rubio’s Gang of Eight bill primarily expanded low-skill immigration.
Rubio proposed wage subsidies, tax breaks for middle-class parents, and reforming our welfare system to encourage work and family formation, but Rubio’s immigration flip-flop obscured his policy proposals. What is even worse, Rubio’s immigration position undercut his reformist policies.
Even more than the flip-flops for which he was constantly attacked by the other candidates, even more than the hideous unpopularity of some parts of the immigration policy he supported, the Gang of Eight bill undermined Rubio’s argument about the lives of the struggling. In his justly praised speech on poverty, Rubio described a working class that was struggling to make ends meet, struggling to keep families together, and often struggling to stay in the labor force. But, even as he was proposing wage subsidies and relocation vouchers to help low earners, Rubio was proposing using the immigration system to increase the ranks of the low-skilled and low-earning. It was an absurdity.
The self-contradictory nature of Rubio’s politics can be summed up in two sets of quotes. In his poverty speech, Rubio talked about “reforms that encourage and reward work.” In private, a Rubio aide argued for expansion of a low-skill guest-worker program on the pretext that currently unemployed Americans “can’t cut it.”