Marco Rubio’s Agile Courtship of Conservative Media

The task of pitching an immigration-reform bill to the conservative press has fallen to the Republican star.

  • Share
  • Read Later
J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Sen. Marco Rubio center, answers a reporter's question as he and a bipartisan group of leading senators announce that they have reached agreement on the principles of sweeping legislation to rewrite the nation's immigration laws, during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 28, 2013.

In the 48 hours since a bipartisan Senate working group unveiled the contours of an immigration-reform package, Marco Rubio has embraced the considerable challenge of selling the deal to the conservative media. It’s a delicate task.

After all, talk radio has scuttled a similar immigration deal before. Back in the spring of 2007, at the tail end of a long bipartisan to pass an immigration-reform bill backed by a Republican president, conservatives yakkers elevated immigration to their number one bugbear. According to a report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, from April to June of 2007 — the month the bill went down to defeat — immigration skyrocketed from a secondary topic to the signal issue on conservative talk radio, consuming nearly 30% of airtime. “Did talk radio kill the immigration bill? That is harder to prove,” Pew wrote. But there is no question right-wing radio ratcheted up the intensity of the issue and contributed to its demise.

By backing an immigration compromise, the Florida Senator runs the risk of alienating conservative voters who oppose so-called amnesty in all forms. Rubio rose to stardom partly because of his perceived ability, as a charismatic Cuban-American, to repair the Republican Party’s frayed ties with Hispanic voters. And yet until this week, he opposed some of the provisions in the bill he’s now flogging. As a Senate candidate in 2010, he slammed the immigration-reform framework crafted during George W. Bush‘s Administration by John McCain and Ted Kennedy. The current blueprint, McCain acknowledged on Monday, has “very little difference” from the old one. Getting tagged as soft on immigration can be fatal in a Republican Party whose presidential nomination Rubio may be seeking in four years. Just ask Rick Perry. Everyone remembers the Texas Governor’s cringe-inducing brain cramp at a debate, but his slide to irrelevance was set in motion by his support for in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.

So far, however, Rubio has run the gauntlet with nary a scratch. His charm offensive has included sparring sessions with conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin and Mike Huckabee. Each of them praised Rubio, even if they equivocated on the bill itself. And while Rubio may not win them all over, his outreach may muffle a conservative backlash that would endanger the legislation’s prospects.

This could happen again. Just ask Limbaugh. “It’s up to me and Fox News, and I don’t think Fox News is that invested in this,” he said Monday. “I don’t think there’s any Republican opposition to this of any majority consequence or size.  We’ll have to wait and see and find out. But this is one of those, just keep plugging away, plugging away, plugging away until you finally beat down the opposition.” It was not a declaration of intent, but a warning — and one Rubio was smart to heed.

The Florida Senator isn’t the only member of the Gang of Eight pitching the press — McCain and Chuck Schumer have been dogged as well — but his role is instrumental, because he has the conservative bona fides and the broad popularity to defang Limbaugh and Co. Rubio’s courtship of the right has also been canny. He casts the proposal as preferable to both the status quo (“what we have now is de facto amnesty,” Rubio said) and the more lenient path to citizenship supported by Barack Obama. “I know the president’s gonna take us in a direction that I would not be comfortable with and I don’t think it’s good for America,” Rubio said. “I’m just trying to do the best I can with what’s already a tough situation.”

Here he frames immigration a choice between competing visions, not a referendum on the bill itself, about which he has been less effusive than his colleagues. Barack Obama took the same approach to fend off Mitt Romney, and so far it has worked for Rubio. “What you are doing is admirable and noteworthy,” Limbaugh told him. “I am going to take a much closer look at this and I am going to try and keep an open mind about it,” Levin said.

In the end, Rubio may not win their support. But tamping down their opposition would be a victory of its own, both for the bill and for the Senator himself.

Correction: This post originally stated Rick Perry was hurt in the Republican presidential primary by his comparatively lenient stance on border security; in fact, it was his defense of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.