Of course he did, you might say — he gained the satisfaction of standing up against a gigantic federal boondoggle that’s going to make life harder for a lot of unsuspecting Americans. Fair enough, but after the amnesty debacle, there’s no way to trust Rubio’s motives 100 percent anymore, is there? My sense of his position on “defund” is the same as my sense of him championing a federal ban on abortions after 20 weeks. I’m almost positive that he would have behaved exactly the same way even if he didn’t feel pressure to atone for his immigration vote with conservatives, but … I just can’t be sure anymore. If he was willing to accept the crappy Gang of Eight plan, what other crappy things would he be willing to accept but is forced to reject — for now — because doing so would utterly destroy what’s left of his tea-party cred? Choosing immigration reform as his first big legislative initiative before 2016 had lots of political upsides for him, but also a big downside: It planted the seed of doubt among the grassroots righties who cheered loudest for him when he first got elected to the Senate.
Superficially, then, he gained by supporting “defund” because it reassured conservatives that, whatever his motive, Rubio will still back causes championed by tea partiers even if most of the public opposes them. Matt Lewis, a big Rubio fan and supporter of immigration reform, offers the flip side of that logic from a centrist perspective, though: If Rubio’s going to try to impress the establishment by backing the Gang of Eight bill, why on earth would he then turn around and back “defund” brinksmanship that the establishment regards as moronic and even suicidal? Now both wings of the party are mad at him. Where’s the logic in that?
For the first time in a long time, he had lost control of his own message. And so, like a man skidding on ice, he overcorrected.
I’m not suggesting Rubio actually changed any of his positions. Instead, he ratcheted up the rhetoric, as if to remind everyone: “I’m a tea party conservative, too!” And he signed on to well-meaning, if unachievable, objectives. One of the ideas he embraced was the idea that we could defund ObamaCare…
I can’t help wondering what would have happened if Rubio had stood up to his conservative colleagues, as Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) did? In the short term, he would have taken even more heat from the people who won’t support him any way. In the long run, however, he might have arisen as a sane, serious conservative who was willing to demonstrate leadership and stand up for it no matter the cost. Instead, Rubio looked like a follower — someone who was goaded into supporting a stand by the more powerful conservative leaders in the Senate. And these optics pose a serious problem for a man who ostensibly wants to be president. Presidents shouldn’t be susceptible to peer pressure. If he can’t stand up to Cruz, how can he stand up to Putin?…
Ironically, the flawed defund strategy also highlights a flaw in Rubio’s strategy. A couple months ago, I wrote that the 2016 Republican primary would be like an NCAA tournament. The way into the final round was to win your “division.” Cruz and Paul, I argued, would have to compete to see who “owns’ the tea party division, and that Christie and Rubio would compete to win the more establishment conservative bracket. Cruz and Paul had nothing to lose by supporting the defund effort. It merely reinforced their brand. But Rubio didn’t seem to grasp that he could never be the tea party guy — that his brand was being a serious, thoughtful, conservative.
I disagree that Rubio hurt himself here mainly because I disagree with Lewis’s “bracket.” Six months ago a moderate/tea party “final four” for the nomination seemed plausible to me, but as Cruz has emerged and Rand Paul has refined his message, I think we’re more likely to see the field shake out among a bona fide centrist, a tea-party champion, and a compromise “hybrid” candidate who can pull from both. When Rubio committed to the Gang of Eight bill, he was all but giving up on being the tea-party champion. The only way he could be that now is if both Paul and Cruz decided not to run, the odds of which are minuscule. So Rubio’s either going to vie for the King RINO or “hybrid” slot in the field, and since Christie seems increasingly assured of winning the former, the obvious choice for Rubio is the latter — which means pandering to tea partiers occasionally to stay viable as a guy with “enough” conservative cred that they won’t revolt if he’s nominated. Rand Paul, very quietly, is now angling for the same “hybrid” slot, I think. He’ll slide over and re-position himself as the tea-party champion in case Cruz doesn’t run, but if Cruz does run, Paul wants to be seen as a guy who can unite various factions — tea partiers, libertarians, and moderates with his policies on social issues like the drug war. That’s why Paul stayed low key (like Rubio) throughout the “defund” effort. He was showing the establishment that, unlike Cruz, he can be trusted not to spearhead an endeavor this quixotic just because tea partiers are all for it. I forget who, but someone said on Twitter yesterday that Paul could have made life very difficult for McConnell by pounding the table about “defund.” He didn’t. Don’t think it went unnoticed.
Ultimately, anyone who wants to stay eligible for the “hybrid” slot has to triangulate between RINOs and tea partiers. And that means occasionally passing a tea-party litmus test when one is presented. Like David Freddoso says:
I’m not a “close-the-borders” kind of conservative — quite the opposite. But if I were, I’d be highlighting Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s lusty embrace of “defund.” What better way to fool the base and develop a riposte in a presidential primary (or even a Senate primary) against any opponent who brings up the immigration issue? “I was there standing with you when we defied the President and tried to defund Obamacare! I was there standing with you when it didn’t matter or accomplish anything at all.” It means nothing, of course, but it covers a multitude of sins.
I don’t think it covers a multitude of sins so much as it gives conservatives a way to talk themselves into supporting Rubio in 2016 if they’re unhappy with their other choices. That’s the whole blueprint behind the “hybrid” strategy — there’s a great mass of Republican voters who might find Christie too abrasive and squishy and Paul/Cruz too fringe-y to trust with power. What if Rubio’s there as an alternative? He wants those voters to say to themselves, “I hate that this guy sold out on amnesty. But … McCain also sold out on amnesty in 2007 and we nominated him. And Romney’s RomneyCare sin was bigger than Rubio’s and we nominated him. And Rubio’s certainly more conservative than either McCain or Romney. And hey — he backed ‘defund’ even when the establishment RINOs were screaming at the tea party for doing it. Yeah, I guess I could live with this guy. He’s better than Christie/Paul/Cruz, in any case.” That’s the Rubio strategy, I think. Lewis is bummed that Rubio is no longer his ideal, but Rubio knows (I think) that the way to being nominated by the GOP isn’t to be the most ideal candidate but the most acceptable one. Backing “defund” — quietly — helps him do that.