How does Sen. Marco Rubio curry favor with Hispanic voters and at the same time burnish his tea party credentials?
Easy. By saying one thing and doing another.
On May 10, Rubio, a Florida Republican, attempted to reframe his Dream Act proposal to give special visas to children of undocumented workers if they attend college or serve in the military. He said, "But I would just say this is really not an immigration issue; it's a humanitarian issue." On that same day, he quietly submitted a bill that would severely threaten humanitarian assistance to nearly 4 million children living in poverty. These are U.S. citizens. But to Rubio they are guilty by association. Through no fault of their own their parents are undocumented workers.
Currently, a credit is available to undocumented workers who report their income to the IRS through the Individual Taxpayer Identification Number program, created in 1996, making them eligible for a Child Tax Credit. For many children, this payment ($1,000 per child) is the difference between abject poverty and the ability to survive.
The program is, in fact, the ultimate conservative brainchild. It's not a handout; rather it's a way to give working people the ability to subsist, and to keep their children off entitlement programs. It is the kind of program that Ronald Reagan championed in the 1980s as a dignified alternative to welfare for the working poor.
Rubio's proposal -- the Responsible Child Tax Credit Eligibility Verification Act of 2012 -- would stiffen the filing requirements for Individual Taxpayer Identification Number applicants. This is being done, according to a Rubio spokesperson, in an attempt to "crack down on fraud at the expense of taxpayers." The Center for American Progress characterizes Rubio's contentions as overstated, and says the proposed bill will greatly harm innocent children who rely on the tax cuts for food on the table, school books and shelter.
There is nothing "humanitarian" about terminating assistance to nearly 4 million American children who depend on such support. And there is nothing humanitarian about his "DREAM Act without the dream," a palliative offer of legality without a clear path to citizenship. Such a proposal is nothing more than crumbs thrown to Latinos, who Rubio apparently hopes aren't paying attention.
Lurking near the top of the list of running mates for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Rubio is seen by many in the GOP as the key to the Latino vote. Yet the heart of his GOP support comes from the anti-immigration extreme right, while an overwhelming majority of Hispanics support immigration reform. It can't be easy for this son of a maid and a bus driver -- both Cuban immigrants -- to reconcile those contradictions.
The hypocrisy of Rubio's recent moves paints a vivid picture of the unbridled ambition of an individual who plays on the politics of resentment and fear at the expense of children. Imagine a patient in critical condition bleeding of multiple stab wounds. Rubio talks about putting a Band-Aid on the patient's little finger, while silently stabbing him in the back.
In March I wrote that "Rubio Needs a 'Nixon in China' Moment," insisting that the senator should use his conservative credentials to courageously break the logjam in immigration reform. I was at first encouraged to see him step into this debate, but unlike the rabidly anti-Communist Nixon, who traveled to China to promote détente, Rubio instead travels to key battleground states -- Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, tea party turf -- to peddle his autobiography.
It's unfortunate that two of Rubio's closest mentors, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida GOP Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen, who both support comprehensive immigration reform, can't shake their protégé by the shoulders and set him straight.
Perhaps they could suggest that he turn from promoting his own book to studying Robert Caro's recently published "The Passage of Power," the fourth installment of the biography of Lyndon Johnson. Caro depicts a scene the night before LBJ's first major address as president, to a joint session of Congress, in which his closest advisers urged him not to make civil rights a central tenet of his presidency. They argued it would antagonize the conservative Southerners who controlled Congress, and threaten his presidency. Caro writes that one adviser "told him to his face that a president shouldn't spend his time and power on lost causes, no matter how worthy those causes might be."
The former conservative senator from Texas retorted, "Well, what the hell's the presidency for?" LBJ's leadership and political genius in passing civil rights legislation brought a measure of justice for millions of people to whom justice had long been denied.
As Rubio abandons Hispanic families, he should ask himself: "What the hell is a Senate seat for?"
He sure doesn't seem to know.
An earlier version of this appeared on CNN.