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August 27, 2014 11:11 AM Marco Rubio, Leader of the Pack

By Ed Kilgore

It really is amazing the extent to which partisan and ideological predispositions can affect how one interprets the same data. I look at Marco Rubio’s behavior on the immigration issue over the last sixteen months and see an unusually shameless flip-flop by a man willing to do almost anything to become president. Byron York looks at the same behavior, and even acknowledges the remarkable extent of self-contradiction going on; yet he purports to see Rubio as a brave and realistic pro-immigration-reform leader who is executing a “course correction” because he understands “the people” need some good vicious border enforcement before they’ll calm down enough to accept the mass legalization, a.k.a. “amnesty,” that conservative activists are sworn to oppose to the very last ditch.

This strikes me as the equivalent of saying the best way to stop a lynch mob is to lead it, but I’d guess York and I would probably agree that there is something of a mob mentality among “the base” on immigration policy these days—a sense of grassroots rage being liberated from the pragmatic designs of calculating pols. And that’s a real problem for those Republican pols, as Jonathan Chait astutely points out today. There’s now no gathering of GOP presidential wannabes with the grassroots conservative activists who will largely determine their fate where DREAMers won’t show up and make things very, very uncomfortable:

The trouble for Republicans is that the political theater created by the Dreamers is not going to stop. They can try their best to control officially sanctioned media debates, but the Dreamers are staging debates without permission, endlessly highlighting the cruelty of the Republican stance. It is a strategy for which the Republicans so far have no answer.

Now you have to figure that Frank Luntz or somebody will come up with a script the pols can use to defuse confrontations with DREAMers in a way that sounds less Steve Kingish. But it’s real hard to train “the base” to behave itself as well. In the famous King/Paul video, what impressed me most were the fundraiser attendees who were chanting “Go Home!” as King ranted at the DREAMers about “your country” (Mexico) being lawless. And at the instantly famous Rubio event in SC earlier this week, Rubio was being egged on by what appeared to be a roomful of angry hooting nativists.

So you can rationalize Rubio’s behavior (and that of similarly shrill GOP pols) all you want, and suggest he’s being a leader on immigration. But at best he’s the leader of a howling pack, with no real control over its future direction.

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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