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July 19, 2013 11:33 AM “Base” Won’t Get Fooled Again?

By Ed Kilgore

TPM’s Josh Marshall has invited (and is apparently receiving) some guff from readers for a confident assertion that Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign is dying before it even came close to being born.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I believe immigration reform is quite likely dead, unless its biggest supporters accept that fact and take the fight into the political and campaign arena rather than letting it die a slow death of opacity on Capitol Hill.
But it’s not too soon to note the main political fatality: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).
Rubio’s vulnerability is so great in part because he staked so much on immigration reform as a way to loft himself to the top tier of 2016 GOP candidates. But the other part is because there was so little to the man in the first place absent his fortuitous would-be positioning as the young new Hispanic face of a Republican party reeling from a reputation for having little to no traction with America’s burgeoning non-white population.

In defending his proposition, Josh has had to deal with the counter-argument that the last two Republican presidential nominees were people who found themselves significantly to the Right of grassroots GOP opinion on big issues. And for one of them, of course—John McCain—it was the same position on the same issue that threatens Rubio’s aspirations. So how come McCain was able to overcome that but Rubio can’t, particularly at a time when “everybody knows” (you know, everyone but actual Republicans) the GOP needs immigration reform in order to survive?

As I’m sure he’d acknowledge, Josh’s answer isn’t exactly a slam dunk:

With McCain I would say that there was a lot to John McCain before immigration reform; something you can’t say for Rubio. With Romney, well, Romney continues to defy my comprehension on both a political and ontological level, though I guess I would note that he’s not president.

While it’s true there “was a lot to John McCain before immigration reform,” much of it was offensive to the same “base” voters hostile to “amnesty:” McCain’s record of support for campaign finance reform and cap-and-trade, and occasional opposition to tax cuts.

Since I tend to share Josh’s bottom-line opinion that Rubio has screwed the pooch by getting sideways with conservative activists on immigration reform, I have to answer the same question: if conservative activists are as powerful in the GOP as I constantly say they are, how come two candidates they really didn’t like wound up leading their party’s national ticket in the last two cycles?

The short answer is that both McCain and Romney had two resources that enabled them to overcome weak fields in a context where opponents were killing each other off demolition-derby style: high name ID and a willingness to repudiate much of their own past records to build trust among movement conservatives. McCain also had a very positive personal “story” and Romney had endless sums of money.

Both nominees benefitted in odd ways from the influence of the Iowa Caucuses, which both men feared and tried to avoid. In 2008, McCain’s most fearsome opponent, Mitt Romney, was thrown off track by losing Iowa to Mike Huckabee, a candidate who couldn’t raise money but had enough appeal among southern evangelicals to keep splitting the non-McCain vote until McCain won the nomination. In 2012, the “smart money” electable-conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, got lost in the wilderness of the Iowa Straw Poll in Ames and dropped out early. His only other really viable rival, Rick Perry, self-destructed, but with a major assist from Romney’s savage and decisive pivot to the right on the issue of—immigration!

Those who ignore all the bizarre twists and turns of the 2008 and 2012 Republican nomination contests and just intone “next in line” or “Republican elites” have a much stronger faith in the mysterious forces that supposedly control politics than I do. Yes, “fundamentals” typically outweigh campaign developments in the outcome of general elections, but party primaries, particularly at the presidential level where crucial developments tend to happen very, very fast, are another thing entirely.

In any event, I don’t see much of a positive precedent for Rubio in either of these unlikely chains of events, and he faces a much more formidable field of rivals if he does decide to run in 2016.

Josh’s main argument about Rubio is less about his positioning than about his accidental nature as a national political figure:

In the 2010 moment Rubio was one of the avatars of the Tea Party revolt not only against President Obama but against the GOP establishment as well. The problem is that that’s not really who Rubio was. Not only did Rubio have a decent amount of low-level corruption baggage, he was neither an ideologue or a rebel. He was a consummate party guy and a deal maker. Exactly what the Tea Party types profess to hate. Becoming Joe Tea Party in 2010 was simply a convenient transformation that helped propel Rubio onto the national stage.
He certainly wouldn’t be the first politician to change his stripes like that. Far from it. But here’s where I think things get tricky. The immigration reform debacle is forcing Rubio to lurch right in a way that makes him look like a guy who has no political core, no principles - just an opportunist. And as his record gets further scrutinized, reporters and voters will find a pretty similar story waiting to be unpacked in the pre-2010 era. It all fits together into a clear and comprehensible narrative about a politician on the make.

I’d put it all a different way. Having been snookered and maneuvered into nominating candidates they didn’t much trust or like for two consecutive cycles, conservative activists are probably going to be a lot more careful in 2016 about picking their champions and splitting their votes. For a guy like Marco Rubio, that means he has a very small margin of error in dealing with “the base.” Perhaps following up his immigration reform number with a long series of base-pleasing positions will rehabilitate him enough to pass the smell test in Iowa and elsewhere; perhaps Josh is right and Marco’s will smell fishier every day. But unlike McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012, Rubio (or for that matter, any other “elite” favorite, like, say, Chris Chritie) can’t count on a scattered and erratic field of rivals who keep running into each other’s clown cars, or a “base” that can’t make up its mind what it wants.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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