WASHINGTON — If Marco Rubio helps pass comprehensive immigration reform, he will have accomplished more as a senator than Barack Obama did. Obama ran for president in 2008 claiming that he would bring people together and launch a new era of bipartisan cooperation, but as a senator he never actually did very much of that. If Sen. Rubio, D-Fla., can help pull off this trick, he will have helped build a bipartisan deal on one of the most volatile and complex issues of our time.
For a senator with national ambitions like Rubio, the cloakroom can be confining. Voters don't generally favor the senatorial talents for speech-making and deal-cutting like they once did. When Obama was considering whether he should run for president or stay in the Senate to get more seasoned, then-Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., suggested he take the plunge before he got barnacled with lots of votes he'd have to explain. (Hillary Clinton's Senate vote on the Iraq war helped sink her in that same campaign.) Plus, if you're in a hurry to get your name at the front of the big bumper sticker, the Senate doesn't offer many opportunities. You can make a quiet difference or a big noise, but it's hard to do both. If you've been a governor, you can highlight your decision-making experience and the big things you did, but Rubio, like Obama, has no executive experience.
Immigration reform offers Sen. Rubio a trap door out of the cloakroom. If legislation passes, he can take a share of the credit, but also claim that he demonstrated a key presidential skill: working in the system to make progress (assuming, of course, that the conventional wisdom is ultimately that the final immigration bill is progress). If Rubio can build on that success, he may even revive the senatorial pathway for others. It may, once again be true that a senator can elevate himself in the national conversation through accomplishments that are a little more sturdy than fine speech-making. It would be a wonderful thing because then politicians-in-a-hurry might actually compete to pass legislation that improves people's lives. Rubio is highlighting this skill in his television appearances. "My job in the Senate is not just to give speeches and do interviews, it's to solve problems," he told Chris Wallace of Fox News.