Hunt: Immigration debate gives Marco Rubio a chance to shine
As the American baseball season begins, it seems appropriate to borrow an analogy from the sport: Will the "can't miss" young phenomenon of the political world, Senator Marco Rubio, be able to play in the big leagues? The immigration battle affords a good test.
The conservative Florida Republican is part of a small group of lawmakers trying to fashion a comprehensive immigration measure that creates a pathway to citizenship for most of the estimated 11 million undocumented workers, changes the criteria for new entrants and devotes more resources to border security.
Rubio, a Cuban-American, is trying to pull off a delicate balancing act: helping Republicans mitigate political shortcomings with Hispanic and Asian voters, while keeping watch over his right shoulder for unfriendly elements in the party.
His goal is to get credit for playing a pivotal role in passing the first major immigration measure in more than a quarter-century even as he convinces the conservative base that the measure would have been far more permissive without his involvement. One source of praise he wouldn't welcome: Obama.
Then, Rubio would run for president in 2016.
To date, the 41-year-old freshman senator has handled this juggling act skillfully. Part of the inner core of congressional dealmakers, he so far has been persuasive in tamping down right- wing objections.
Inside the Senate's so-called Gang of Eight, Rubio has been cautious, at times visibly nervous, as he tried to slow the process with little success.
Challenges lie ahead. He has little leeway to come up with new hurdles that will placate the conservatives such as denying citizenship to any undocumented immigrants who re-entered the U.S. illegally. Whatever leverage he has is matched by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, mainly Democrats, who won't accept a diluted bill.
The legislation will be written by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Rubio isn't a member of the panel. But it does contain a 42-year-old Cuban-American first-term senator who is staunchly conservative and burns with ambition: Ted Cruz of Texas. He doesn't have much clout in the Senate; but he could make his Florida colleague squirm by attacking the bill.
Some of the political stakes are overblown. Even if Rubio bolted - unlikely, though he showed signs of having cold feet late last week - the measure could still get the 60 votes it needs in the Senate if John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake - also Republican members of the Gang of Eight - back it. It would be a messier process, however.
And while polling clearly shows strong public support for immigration reform, despite opposition from most Republican voters, there is little evidence that this is a major issue in party primaries. There are few examples of Republicans who've lost primaries because of their immigration stance, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina Republican presidential contest last year even though he was attacked as soft on immigration.
At the same time, Rubio isn't the savior who will deliver to Republicans the vote of Hispanics, more than 70 percent of whom went for Obama in 2012. Health care and education matter as much as immigration to most of these voters.
As a national candidate, the Florida senator radiates promise. He gave what many consider the best speech at the Republican National Convention in August; it was overshadowed by the debacle involving the actor Clint Eastwood the same night. Rubio's response to Obama's State of the Union address was considered banal, with much attention devoted to his decision to lunge for a drink of water while speaking. He shrewdly recovered, marketing the bottled water. In retail politics he has few peers.
Still, there are some red flags. On the Senate Intelligence Committee, he failed to impress some high-ranking officials who privately described him as more show than substance. In Florida, where he became speaker of the State House, he cut corners on ethics. These transgressions and concerns about governing gravitas are why he didn't make Mitt Romney's final cut for the vice-presidential nomination.
His palpable presidential aspirations face another possible roadblock: Jeb Bush. The former Florida governor was helpful to Rubio's 2010 Senate primary victory. But there's no real trust between these two prominent politicians, and if Bush runs in 2016 he may clear the Florida field. The smart betting is that Bush won't run.
Rubio has said that "for most of my life, I've been in a hurry." It can be fatal for a promising politician to move too fast, too soon; witness Dan Quayle.
Yet one who did and succeeded is in the White House today. Rubio fans note that in three years he'll have more experience than Obama had in 2008: two more years in the Senate, and a record as a leader, not just a member, of his state legislature. If he helps shepherd an immigration bill, he'll have the major legislative achievement that eluded Senator Obama.
One more Washington comparison: the young baseball phenomenon, 20-year-old Bryce Harper, whose two runs allowed the Washington Nationals to win their opening game.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.