A leftover from Friday’s candidate forum in New Hampshire via Eliana Johnson. I had a sense of deja vu watching this clip, and not just because I’ve blogged roughly a thousand Rubio statements on immigration over the past two years. Didn’t he … give almost this exact answer to Bob Schieffer on “Face the Nation” back in April, up to and including his endorsement of a path to citizenship as the final step in a three-stage immigration reform process? Come to think of it, he did! I wrote about it at the time. In fact, as far as I know, Rubio has never once opposed citizenship for illegals since he joined the Gang of Eight in early 2013. Johnson claims in her post that “he’s said he regrets his support for the failed Gang of Eight bill” since then, but I’m not sure I’d describe his position that way. What he’s said is that he’s come to realize that a comprehensive bill is politically impossible in Congress right now and that only a security-first piecemeal solution has any hope of passing. He’s never said, as far as I know, that he “regrets” joining the Gang or that he feels Obama and Schumer were untrustworthy partners. The distinct impression he’s given is that if the politics in Congress changed and comprehensive reform was suddenly viable again, Rubio might be onboard for that — in theory. In practice, he’d vote no because that’s what’s required of him to stay on the right’s good side in the presidential sweepstakes. But he’s never formally disclaimed comprehensive immigration solutions as inherently flawed or not worth doing (again, as far as I know). It’s the politics that makes them non-starters, not the policy.
What makes this not so newsy, though, isn’t the fact that Rubio has given the answer before but rather that, realistically, he can’t oppose a path to citizenship at this point. Having already voted for one when he voted for the Gang of Eight bill, what possible reason could he give now to oppose it? “I no longer trust illegals to become responsible Americans”? If he said that, he’d be all but admitting that he got suckered by Obama and Schumer, not a quality GOP voters want in a would-be president. To some extent he’s like Romney defending RomneyCare — better to disagree with the base and come off as resolute in the rightness of your position than cave and admit you were a chump before. Beyond that, Rubio’s playing a long game. He’s lining up members of the GOP’s pro-amnesty donor class to fund his coming war with Jeb and he’s selling himself as a guy who, by dint of his ethnicity and his work on the Gang of Eight, can pull in Latino voters in a way that no other GOP nominee could. If he suddenly comes out against citizenship, he’d be crapping away those strengths just to try to earn a little extra cred from conservatives, most of whom like him fine anyway and might actually lose respect for him if he tried to pander too shamelessly. The most he’s willing to do to mollify righties, I think, is what he’s doing here, emphasizing that security must come first and insisting that illegals should have a long go-to-the-back-of-the-line path to residency (and eventually citizenship) rather than an accelerated “special” path as part of a mass amnesty. What other answer could he give that would do him more political good, knowing that donors and Latino swing voters will be irritated the more hawkish he gets?