By John Dickerson
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.
Recently, Rubio appeared on seven Sunday news shows, setting a new standard. Rubio's main task has been as an envoy to the Republican conservative wing. The Florida senator is a trusted voice on this issue because of his heritage, but also because of his conservative voting record and relationship with Tea Party activists. Rubio has a chance to sell Senate conservatives in a way that Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., never could. That's because members know that Rubio can help give them cover in the wider conservative world in a way Graham can't.
In this role, Rubio talks to conservatives but it also means speaking for them in negotiations with Democrats and Republican squishes. We'll see if Rubio is able to maintain that balance. He has already had to knock down false reports about free cellphones being given to illegal immigrants. In his debates with conservative luminaries, even if he hasn't emerged victorious, he's kept the relationship steady. "I disagree with major parts of this bill," said talk show host Mark Levin, " but you can't deny [Rubio] has integrity."
Rubio doesn't need to convince everyone; he simply needs to convince enough people to hold a deal together. Can he sell a new definition of amnesty, one of the most potent words in politics? Rubio argues that the bill is not amnesty because the pathway to citizenship is more onerous than it is under current law. Perhaps equally difficult will be convincing conservatives that the broader security requirements and enforcement mechanisms in the bill will stick when they are in the hands of bureaucrats who they don't trust and who have let them down before. "He has been great at selling the summary [of the bill]," says one veteran Senate staffer, "now he's got to sell the [legislative] language."
In the Rand vs. Rubio competition to use the Senate as a national platform, showing that he can get something accomplished is how Rubio can distinguish himself. Sen. Ran Paul, Ky., is exciting and a fierce advocate, but so was his father. This skill can fill a ballroom and light up Twitter, but it doesn't help getting laws passed or changing the ones that are already on the books. As President Obama has learned, speeches only take you so far.
Of course, even if comprehensive immigration reform survives, one piece of legislation doesn't make a career. Plus, Rubio had advantages on this specific bill that aren't broadly transferable. His Cuban heritage made him the perfect salesperson for a party desperate to rebrand itself with Hispanic voters. Good politicians take advantage of their opportunities and Marco Rubio has so far. But if immigration reform passes, Rubio will rightly face the next task: proving that he is not a one-hit wonder.