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Marco Rubio's Big Problem: Explaining His Immigration Shift

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is a member of the so-called Gang of Eight, a bipartisan group of lawmakers working on immigration reform.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is a member of the so-called Gang of Eight, a bipartisan group of lawmakers working on immigration reform.

Sen. Marco Rubio has a problem. He has transformed from conservative hero to suspect in the eyes of many on the political right because he now supports "a path to citizenship" for people unlawfully in the U.S. after forcefully opposing it in 2010 when he was running for U.S. Senate.

The senator from Florida, who's considered to be a potential Republican presidential candidate, has tried to gloss over the shift. Unfortunately, he's getting called on it. By Factcheck.org. And by many conservatives, like those who booed his name when it was mentioned at a Tea Party rally this week on Capitol Hill. Or Ann Coulter, who said Friday the Senate shouldn't take up immigration until it becomes a Rubio-free body. Former Republican Rep. Allen West is even saying he might give Rubio a primary challenge over his immigration shift.

If Rubio does decide to make the run for president, he will certainly be attacked not only as a flip-flopper but for supporting a policy that's anathema to many conservatives. So, what's a senator to do?

Rubio has a few options, though they all have risks. Here are some possible approaches:

The people made me do it: Rubio could always say he decided to change his position to more accurately reflect the desires of his Florida constituency.

A Quinnipiac University poll released this week indicated that 58 percent of those surveyed agreed with the "path to citizenship" approach while 12 percent said people in the U.S. unlawfully should be allowed to stay, but not given citizenship. Only 24 percent were of the deport or self-deport persuasion.

Even among Florida Republicans, nearly half, 47 percent, supported a citizenship path with 15 percent being willing to let those here unlawfully stay but without allowing them to become citizens.

So Rubio could say he's merely trying to more faithfully reflect the views of Floridians. Isn't that what a lawmaker is supposed to do in a representative democracy?

The downside: This approach could open Rubio up to criticism that he's led by the polls. And few politicians are willing to openly admit that polling impacts their policy positions.

I've seen the light: This is where Rubio could borrow a page from Abraham Lincoln. In his response to journalist Horace Greeley, who harassed the 16th president for not being all-in on abolition, Lincoln famously said: "I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views."

Rubio could do a Lincoln and say his 2010 position on providing a path to citizenship was one such error. As a Republican, he could even cite Lincoln, the first Republican president, with some justification.

The downside: By conceding he was wrong before, Rubio would also be saying that many conservatives who hold his former position are wrong now.

He's already angered many in the party, so why add even more? Telling the voters who make up your party's base that they've got the policy exactly backward is a sure way to invite a Senate primary challenge, not to mention damage your fortunes in Iowa and some other early presidential election states where the base is very conservative.

Stand put: Rubio could go with the status quo, whistling past the reality that he has dramatically changed his position on the path-to-citizenship concept. In other words, he could tough it out.

Mitt Romney proved you can get the GOP nomination even though you take a position during your presidential run (i.e., anti-individual mandates in health care) you once supported.

The downside: While Romney captured the nomination, even then many conservatives never truly trusted him. Rubio could face something similar. Tweets with "Rubio" and "traitor" and "RINO" are already popping up with regularity.

Also, Romney was able to finesse the issue by saying he was against big, bad federal mandates, not state ones. It's difficult to see how Rubio could do a Romney on this one. He can't resort to the federal-state differences when it comes to providing a path to citizenship.

Whichever path he takes, Rubio can be certain that he will continue to be hammered by conservatives who actually took his 2010 words at face value when he said he always had and always would oppose what they call "amnesty."

Partly based on that position, conservatives and the Tea Party helped put him in the Senate. The ones who feel burned seem determined to make sure they're not the only ones who get singed in the deal.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.