Should we still love Marco Rubio?

I knew that the “let’s let bygones be bygones with Marco” movement would start eventually. He’s too appealing a retail politician and has too much potential to make some (modest) inroads with Latino voters not to get a serious look from victory-starved righties in 2016, amnesty or no. No matter how terrible a candidate’s signature legislation — *cough*RomneyCare*cough* — if conservatives think he’s their most “electable” option, he’s got a shot at winning.

So yeah, as I’ve been telling you for weeks, I expect that movement. But I didn’t expect it to start 16 hours after the big Senate sellout. And I sure didn’t expect it to come from a border hawk as smart and righteous as Conn Carroll.

It was obvious from the beginning that supporting an immigration bill with a path to citizenship was going to be a tough and risky sell to the conservative base of the Republican Party, but Rubio took that risk.

Instead of ignoring or belittling the conservative media, Rubio enthusiastically engaged them with respect and candor. Ultimately, I think he made some promises during these interviews that may hurt his credibility down the road, but I do not believe he ever intended to deceive. If anything, the legislation he was able to produce with Democrats probably fell short of what he originally thought it would look like.

Throughout the debate, Rubio never impugned the motivations or character of his opponents. Instead, he often praised them for trying to make the bill better. This stands in stark contrast to Republican leaders of past immigration reform efforts. And when wayward staff, or other supposedly conservative allies, did disparage amnesty opponents, Rubio either admonished them or distanced himself from the attacks.

But … making nice with conservatives was the entire reason Rubio was coveted as a member of the Gang of Eight. It was his job. Celebrating him for playing his role is like celebrating Chuck Schumer for saying nice things publicly about Republicans on the Gang who helped him push this travesty. It’s not because he’s a “statesman,” it’s because it’s entirely in his political interest to do so. Rubio’s job was to soothe the savage grassroots conservative beast, at least long enough to get the Gang’s bill through Congress. He was going to carry their water to the enemy by being Mr. Charm, and that’s what he did. And of course, it was in his own personal interest to do so. If he had antagonized the right, resorting to McCain/Graham-style sneers, he really might be done for 2016. But by being cordial and respectful and making himself available to conservative media throughout, he’s drained lots of venom from the attacks that might otherwise have been made on him by talk radio and conservative publications. He’s been wounded by this, but wounds heal. His goal was simply to keep the wound from being mortal, and the key to that was to keep the charm coming even under fire. Look no further than the fact that Carroll, one of the most incisive and relentless critics of the GOP’s big amnesty sellout, couldn’t wait even 24 hours after the vote to absolve Rubio from charges of deceit. This is the silver lining for Republican border hawks in all this: If Rubio is so superb a retail politician that even one of the bill’s fiercest critics is writing posts like “Why I still love Marco Rubio” before the Senate vote has left the front page, then the guy really does deserve a look on electability grounds in 2016. He might not be able to sell ice to Eskimos, but if he’s got Eskimos writing tributes to him for his amazing salesmanship, then he’s got something.

But here’s the thing: He was deceitful. Not to beat a long-dead horse, but this guy — and Ayotte, and Dean Heller, and even McCain — all lied to greater or lesser degrees about this subject to get elected by posing as stalwart border hawks. (Mickey Kaus flagged this piece from 2009 as especially fun. Sample quote: “If you grant amnesty, the message that you’re sending is that if you come in this country and stay here long enough, we will let you stay. And no one will ever come through the legal process if you do that.”) One of the most dispiriting moments I’ve had in this process came this morning on Twitter when some righties argued to me that I’m overreacting to Rubio’s lies because all politicians lie. It’s part of their job description. If that’s the new standard — lie your ass off to get elected because we expect you to — then there’s no reason to prefer any one Republican candidate to another on actual policy grounds. They’re all liars, so let’s just elect the guy with the best retail skills and hope he doesn’t screw us too much once in office. (That’s basically Rubio’s 2016 campaign slogan.) Two problems with that logic, though. One: Immigration isn’t just any issue. Rubio didn’t lie about whether he’d support a farm bill or a tweak to student-loan interest rates, only to renege. Immigration was a core part of his appeal to conservatives. He ran as an eloquent spokesman for border security despite left/media identity-politics expectations that any Latino politician must ultimately support comprehensive immigration reform. And now he supports comprehensive immigration reform. It’d be like someone running as a staunch hawk and then, once in office, deciding that Ron Paul had some really good ideas about foreign policy. Should hawks let that guy slide because “all politicians lie”?

Two: Rubio wasn’t elected as just any Republican pol. He was a self-described “movement conservative” who caught the tea-party wave against the Republican establishment and surfed it all the way to the Senate. Three years later, despite lots of red-meat conservative rhetoric over that time, the two policy pushes with which he’s most identified, I think, are this sham immigration reform bill and international interventionism in various forms, including in Syria. He has, in other words, become a sort of successor to McCain in the Senate. Has anyone who ran on an anti-establishment tide ever embraced the establishment as quickly as that? Even now, even after everything, I strongly prefer his flip-flopping to the grotesque omnibus opportunism of Charlie Crist. But it’s worth asking: How different would the Senate have looked since 2010 with Crist in there instead of Rubio? What would have changed in terms of actual policy? If anything, without Rubio to woo conservatives, the Senate immigration effort would have been in deeper trouble than it is now. The fact that we have to pause and even consider this sort of “what if Crist won?” hypothetical makes me think maybe we should hold off on the Rubio tributes. For now.

Haunting exit quotation from Reince Priebus: “We wouldn’t have been in this place without Republicans being at the table pushing for immigration reform. And I think this conservation would never be happening without Marco Rubio.”