WASHINGTON -- Marco Rubio's plan to appear on conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh's radio show Tuesday had seemed, a day before, like a bad idea. Limbaugh had bashed the bipartisan immigration reform plan released Monday by the Florida Republican senator and others, labeling it "amnesty."
Yet there were early clues in Limbaugh's show on Tuesday that he might not go as hard on Rubio as it appeared he would Monday. Limbaugh, reviled by the left but still very influential on the right, denied saying that he and Fox News would have to halt the new push for immigration reform.
"I didn't say that. Did you hear me say that? I'm going to call on Fox News and others to join me in defeating this plan? I don't recall saying that," Limbaugh said.
Let's go to the videotape. Here's Limbaugh on Monday:
"My guess is going to be that after we listen to some of the sound bites of, say, Senator Schumer and Senator McCain and Senator Menendez, some of the others on this bipartisan group announcing immigration reform today, my guess is that it's gonna sound very close to exactly what we were told in 1986 with the first amnesty. I'll bet you we hear that if we do this, we'll never have to do it again. We've got to do this 'cause it's out of control. We've gotta do this, secure the border, and so forth ... I don't know that there's any stopping this. It's up to me and Fox News, and I don't think Fox News is that invested in this. 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."
When Rubio appeared on Limbaugh's show, the talk show host's first question regarding immigration reform was, "Why are we doing this?"
That was about as combative as it got.
The rest of the interview turned into Limbaugh saying that President Obama doesn't care about border security, and Rubio using that line to try to pin the president down into supporting the framework that he and several other senators laid out on Monday.
Rubio also emphasized that border security, workplace enforcement and visa exit tracking are the first priority, and then something can be done about the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S.
It was a high-stakes interview. Rubio had done effective outreach to media figures on the right last week, before the bipartisan group of senators of which he is a part revealed their plan. But the interview with Limbaugh, who wields enormous influence over the conservative grassroots and by extension many political figures on the right, was the first potential trouble spot for Rubio after the rollout of the plan.
It probably could not have gone better.
Limbaugh's focusing of his criticism on Obama took the same line of reasoning that Mark Levin, another nationally syndicated conservative talk show host, began to follow last week when Rubio came on his show.
Simply put, talk radio needs a bad guy. They need to rail against something in the immigration fight. Making Obama the amnesty representative allows the talk radio crowd to view Rubio as the leader of the enforcement and law and order effort. They can push against the White House, and if there is some sense by the time Congress votes on a piece of legislation that Rubio has led a successful fight against a pro-amnesty contingent on the left to retain real measures guaranteeing greater border security, workplace enforcement and visa exit tracking, then any revolt among conservative House members might be muted.
"It's going to be Barack Obama who undermines this," Limbaugh said after Rubio had finished the interview and hung up the phone. "It's Barack Obama who's going to undercut the primary objective that all of these eight senators say is imperative to them, and that is border security first."
So, by that logic, Limbaugh is essentially ok with the five-page outline released yesterday by Rubio and the other senators, and sees his job now not as defeating any bill, but as defeating the president's effort to undermine the Senate initiative.
Limbaugh in league with Chuck Schumer, the New York Democratic senator? Limbaugh may not see it that way, but that is where the logic of his argument leads to.
During the interview, Rubio argued that he was "confident that given a fair chance I can convince most Americans, including Americans of Hispanic descent, that limited government, that free enterprise, is better for them, and better for their upward mobility, than big government is."
"That's the reason why they came here," he said.
Limbaugh questioned whether immigrants still come for work and opportunity, or whether it's now about getting government benefits.
"It is a challenge," Rubio said. "We have a real fight on our hands to convince the American people that limited government and free enterprise is the right thing for our future."
Limbaugh was effusive in his praise for Rubio as the interview concluded.
"What you are doing is admirable and noteworthy. You are recognizing reality," Limbaugh told Rubio. "My concern is the president wants to change the reality. My concern is the president wants people to believe something that isn't true, is, and that is that you guys are not being truthful what you say, that you really don't want an improved life for Hispanics, that you really are still racist. He's not going to give that up. Look how far he's gotten with this so far."
"You have a difficult job ahead of you because you are meeting everybody honestly and forthrightly halfway. You're seeking compromise. Obama is seeking political victory. Obama doesn't care about enforcing existing law so people say, 'Why will he enforce anything that's new?'" Limbaugh said.
Rubio also gave a nod to Limbaugh listeners who might still be uncomfortable with where he's trying to go on the issue.
"I know this is a tough issue. I do. I know people are uncomfortable about it. It doesn't feel right in some instances to you know allow people who have come here undocumented to be able to stay," Rubio said. "I know that some people are uncomfortable with that notion. I know this is a tough issue to work through. But I would just say this to you. If this country goes downhill, there's nowhere else in the world. There's nothing else. There's no replacement for it. There's no alternative for America. It's either us or no one."
That sent a thrill up Limbaugh's leg. He sent Rubio off with a blessing that sounded like a conferral of the Reagan mantle on the 41-year-old senator's shoulders, and might as well have been a benediction to go out and take the GOP nomination for president in 2016.
"Senator, it wasn't that long ago where your message was what this country was," Limbaugh said. "It wasn't that long ago where your message was a winner, where your message defined this country. And I wish you all the best in reviving it. The country really does hinge on it, I think."
Limbaugh wasn't done raving about Rubio. When he came back from the commercial break, he yelled into the microphone with excitement.
"Is that guy good or what? That was impressive. He stays on point. He stays on message and he believes it. You can tell that he didn't need notes, that he didn't have to consult anything, no prompter. It's in his heart, and he's lived it to boot!" Limbaugh said.
"And I'll say this too: here is a guy who does not fear talk radio. He embraced it. He is not at all intimidated or afraid. He wasn't afraid of what would be said about him coming on this program. Kudos all around."