Fear is a big motivator in politics. This has been known ever since Niccolò Machiavelli pointed it out, at the very least. The Republican Party has shown mastery in the use of this fact for years. To be fair, Democrats also attempt the tactic from time to time, but this isn't really relevant to the discussion of Senator Marco Rubio and his continuing push to get his fellow Republicans to support his efforts on immigration reform. Because while Republican fear-mongering is usually directed at Democrats, Rubio's tactics are aimed directly at members of his own party. His clever talking points are aimed, these days, at House Republicans who are reluctant to support the Senate immigration reform bill Rubio helped draft. Yesterday, he upped the ante in this game, with a frightening (for them) new attempt to scare Republicans into supporting his effort.
Rubio's initial effort was an impressive attempt to undercut one of the favorite knee-jerk responses in the Republican Party whenever the immigration reform subject comes up. Rubio boldly pronounced, earlier this year, that keeping things as they are (by not passing any legislation at all) is nothing more than "de facto amnesty." That's downright brilliant, on a wordsmithing level alone. The "A-word" has been the go-to reaction for many Republicans for a long time now, and has the benefit of being short and snappy. Propose any change whatsoever in immigration law? Amnesty! Propose anything short of deporting everyone without the proper paperwork? Amnesty! It has rolled easily off the tongue of many a conservative, whenever immigration reform is even discussed.
Now, Rubio's attempt to turn the tables on this epithet has yet to be proven effective, of course. But -- again, on just pure political sloganeering grounds -- Rubio's "de facto amnesty" is indeed an interesting counterthrust. Because it puts the onus on any Republican who favors doing nothing over doing something on immigration reform. Don't support Rubio's immigration reform? Then you are for de facto amnesty, my friend. You support the status quo. Refusing to support reform now means you are supporting the millions of people living in America right now and refusing to support a way to solve the problem. Hence, you are supporting de facto amnesty.
As I said, the jury's still out on this one, but on cunning and cleverness it certainly is a noticeable attempt to co-opt a favorite Republican talking point and redefine it to put the pressure on people who have been wielding the "amnesty!" weapon for years. Yesterday, though, Rubio unveiled a new nightmarish (for anti-immigration-reform Republicans) scenario, should House Republicans continue to refuse to act. It may not be a "nuclear weapon" level of fear, but it certainly qualifies as "dropping an Obama-bomb on Republicans" (to coin a phrase). Here is Rubio, from his Florida radio interview, explaining what could happen if the House doesn't act:
I believe that this president tempted -- will be tempted, if nothing happens in Congress -- to issue an executive order, as he did for the DREAM Act kids a year ago, where he basically legalizes eleven million people by the sign [sic] of a pen.
Rubio laid out his case: If House Republicans don't pass the Senate bill (or something very much like it), then the big bad President Obama will just decree that all 11 million people will immediately become American citizens -- and he will do so without all the good Republican ideas contained within the bill: a beefed-up e-Verify for employers and a massive buildup of border security and the Border Patrol. None of that will happen if House Republicans don't pass the Senate bill -- and, when Obama does the dastardly deed, Republicans will have missed an opportunity to fix the border problems.
Once again, Rubio is attempting to turn Republican fears around and convince recalcitrant House members that the alternative is worse. Doing nothing will equate to losing the chance to enact the Republican parts of the bill. And then Obama's just going to legalize all eleven million anyway, leaving Republicans with nothing.
Who knows whether this will prove to be a convincing argument to House Republicans with very few minorities in their home districts (those for whom immigration reform is not a big issue, in other words). To stretch a metaphor, the jury's not just out on this attempt, the jury hasn't even been empanelled yet. Rubio just made the remarks yesterday, after all, so it is far too early to judge how effective this new spin will become.
On the wordsmithing, talking-point-creating scale alone, it is an admirable attempt, though. What, after all, is the biggest fear Republicans have? President Obama. They alternately (and schizophrenically) paint Obama as either ineffective and a weak leader, or as some sort of dictatorial poobah who rules by edict alone. Rubio's new spin, obviously, plays into the second of these caricatures. By doing so, Rubio is attempting to turn the tables on a very big underlying motivator for Republicans these days -- by not passing immigration reform, Obama will chalk up a political win. Part of the reluctance of House Republicans to act is that they really don't want to hand Obama any sort of political and legislative victory that he can use to bolster his second-term legacy. Rubio's fear-mongering cuts against this urge, painting inaction as giving Obama a bigger victory than action would.
He doesn't come right out and say it point-blank, of course. He doesn't want to cross the point of no return with his own party (especially when he would really like them to nominate him for Obama's job in 2016). But make no mistake about it, he has just thrown down about the heaviest gauntlet possible in Republicanland today: aiding and abetting Barack Obama. Them's fightin' words, normally (to put it another way), in the GOP.
Democrats, intelligently, are mostly keeping out of Rubio's way. He's going out on a limb, and those on the Left have mostly realized that anything they do or say about Rubio is going to give some sort of rhetorical ammunition to those Republicans who are going to oppose his efforts no matter what. Kind words from Democrats toward Rubio would be especially damaging right now, and (so far) Democrats have largely realized this political reality. This is all to the good, as the entire struggle is taking place within the Republican Party, so Democrats need to stand back and let it play out, for the most part. Of course, Barack Obama is likely never going to do what Rubio is now using to threaten House Republicans, but now is not the time for Democrats to point this out. Just sit back and watch Rubio run with it, and see how far he gets. Again, all to the greater good.
I must admit that I've been pleasantly surprised at how Rubio has thrown himself into this fray. I have previously written (on multiple occasions) of my belief that Rubio was not really interested in creating any bill in the Senate -- he just wanted to be seen as working toward a bill. Politically, it made sense, because all of his efforts for the Senate bill have damaged his presidential chances among a large slice of the Republican base. If the Senate bill were to become law, there are a lot of Republican voters out there who will never forget and never forgive Rubio's leadership on the matter. So I have to eat some humble pie personally, and note that Rubio is making a genuine effort to see the bill succeed -- at great political risk to himself.
Rubio's message is easy enough to understand: If Republicans don't act, Obama will, and we will have lost the chance to enact our preferred changes. It's clever on many levels. If the bill does pass, Rubio is hoping that this will insulate him to some extent from the charges that he caved to Democrats on immigration. He can say, out on the presidential hustings, that "if we had refused to act, President Obama would have made things much much worse!" -- a charge that is calculated to rouse Republican base voters on a primal level. After his attempt to defuse the "amnesty" charge, Rubio's new "Obama-bomb" could go a long way toward framing the debate which is now raging among House Republicans. "I'm going to vote for immigration reform, because if I don't, Obama's going to do it without all the protections Republicans wrote into the bill" may become a new and innovative way for House Republicans to rationalize actually supporting the issue. If it does, Marco Rubio will be the one who made it happen. If he manages to sway Republican opinion in the House and actually get a bill on Obama's desk, Rubio will have an issue on the campaign trail that he can use both in the primaries to sway the Republican base ("I stopped Obama's nefarious plans to legalize everyone without border protections!"), and in the general election to woo moderates ("Because of my leadership, we got immigration reform passed!"). Not bad, in terms of political tactics. Not bad at all. If he can make it work, that is.
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