Second look at Rubio 2016?

I knew this was coming. No, really, I did.

A contingent on the right will never forgive him for backing a bill offering a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and his critics say he jettisoned the plan strictly to preserve his political standing. But in interviews with numerous GOP leaders and influential conservative activists in early primary states, his new push seems to have won over one-time skeptics who are now more open to a prospective Rubio candidacy…

“I’m sure there are people who are unhappy with what I did on immigration and will never be supportive of me again,” Rubio said in an interview in the Capitol last week. “But by and large, I think if you look at my approval ratings in different metrics that are out there, I feel like many of my supporters maybe disagreed with me on immigration — and disagreed strongly — but they understand that I’ve been involved in other issues that are important for the country.”…

Last week, Rubio got rave reviews from Rush Limbaugh and Iowa activists when the son of Cuban immigrants blasted the Hawkeye State’s veteran Democratic senator, Tom Harkin, in a floor speech over Cuba and Venezuela. Rubio has methodically tried to burnish his foreign policy credentials to carve out a middle ground between the GOP hawks and libertarians in his party, while recently making high-profile swings through Asia and Europe.

In a series of speeches in Washington and in Florida, Rubio is piecing together a domestic policy platform, rolling out proposals to overhaul higher education, such as by allowing the transfer of accredited online courses to traditional colleges, and provide a conservative alternative to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, including a new proposal to implement the earned income tax credit.

Conn Carroll, who maintained his admiration for Rubio even while railing against his amnesty efforts, also thinks it might be time for a second round of Marcomania. The timing for it is perfect: Christie’s faded, Rand Paul’s lying low while foreign policy issues flare up, and Jeb Bush and Scott Walker haven’t tipped their hands yet. It’s only Rubio and Cruz who’ve been in the news lately, and much of Cruz’s coverage is devoted to his battles with Senate colleagues. For the moment, Rubio has the spotlight largely to himself. I told you last summer, even as the backlash to the Gang of Eight bill was raging, that he wasn’t finished as a presidential candidate. For one basic reason: With the possible exception of Cruz, there’s not a single likely Republican nominee who’s appreciably better on immigration than Rubio is. (Read this old post from Mickey Kaus to see why Cruz is only “possibly” better.) You can and should hold it against Rubio that he was decetiful on immigration as a candidate, but I think it’s goofy to believe he’d cave any more comprehensively on the issue as president than Bush or Walker would. In fact, if you’re trying to talk yourself into giving him a second chance, there’s an argument to be made that he’d be marginally better on amnesty than some of his rivals at this point precisely because he took such a beating for it last year. One sellout can be forgiven as a mistake, especially if the House ends up doing nothing on immigration. A second sellout as president would be an irredeemable betrayal.

Needless to say, the weaker Obama seems on foreign policy over the next two years, the more hawks like Rubio will benefit during the primary campaign. It’s an open question to me how much of the new respect for Paul-style non-interventionism expressed by grassroots conservatives over the past few years is based on its merits as an ideology versus how much is simply a reaction to Obama’s interventionist blunders. O escalated in Afghanistan and got a few more years of bloody stalemate and aggravation from Karzai for his trouble. He escalated in Libya and ended up with a murdered ambassador and thousands of weapons from Qaddafi’s arsenal going loose. He wanted to escalate in Syria but eventually backed out once he realized that virtually no one in either party wanted to roll the dice on that one. All of that was good for Paul, who could cite it as further proof that interfering abroad almost always means grief and regret. But the Syria debacle may have been a pyrrhic victory for non-interventionists: By letting a character as loathsome as Putin bail him out with a face-saving disarmament deal, O looked weak, which antagonized hawks. Now he looks weak again, unfairly in the sense that his options are no better than Bush’s were vis-a-vis Georgia in 2008 but even rhetorically with lame spin about “uncontested arrivals” and “lines” that no one takes seriously anymore. The more hapless he seems over the next two years, the more convincing Rubio will sound when warning tea partiers that America needs a hawk as C-in-C, not a non-interventionist. That’s one of the big mysteries that the next primary election will solve: Is the GOP truly trending more dovish or is it simply reliably anti-Obama, irrespective of whether O’s leaning hawkish or dovish at a given moment? Rubio’s going to argue that Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria would have been successful with a more competent interventionist giving the orders. If GOP voters agree, that’s a stark repudiation of Paul’s call for a more “modest” foreign policy.

Either way, I’m looking forward to Paul’s inevitable zinger that if the party wants a guy who supports amnesty and dreams of intervening in every international mess on the map, they might as well nominate McCain again instead of Rubio. Exit question: If Walker and Rubio both run, who wins? I imagine them as competing for the same niche between the loud-and-proud centrists like Bush and Christie and the stalwart tea partiers like Paul and Cruz. Walker has the edge because he’s a governor and of course because of his glorious union-busting victory in Wisconsin, no?

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