Rolling Stone’s Janet Reitman has posted a massive autopsy report on Marco Rubio’s failed presidential campaign, with one passage laying to waste his “work” on the Gang of Eight immigration bill. This portion sets out to answer angry former Marco consultant Frank Luntz, who asks why Rubio’s Tea Party ascent didn’t bolster his 2016 campaign.
From Rolling Stone:
GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who’d first met Rubio when he was gathering “ideas” for his book, helped Rubio shape his message. “Rubio was the first Tea Party candidate, and he’s the same man now as he was then,” he says. “I think a great question is, how did Rubio start his D.C. career as the first Tea Party senator and wind up being the establishment choice?”
The answer is, Rubio has always been an establishment choice. Since his Senate run, his truest base has been the broad network of mostly white Republican elites operating behind the scenes. In late 2015, it was reported that Rubio’s campaign had benefited from more “dark money” donations than any other presidential candidate. In his Senate bid, Rubio claimed to have run a grassroots campaign, raising $7 million in small donations from ordinary citizens – “I’ve always told people they buy into our agenda, we don’t buy into theirs,” he said – although it made up only 36 percent of the $19.7 million raised during his campaign. Top donors included Karl Rove’s American Crossroads PAC and the conservative activist group Club for Growth, as well as the hedge fund run by Rubio’s most influential backer, billionaire Paul Singer. In an illustration of the split between the GOP base and its donor class, Singer was also a major funder of the movement for gay marriage.
The Tea Party, as it became increasingly apparent, had simply been a vehicle for Rubio, whose signature modus operandi, dating back to his earliest days in politics, has been to turn his back on those who’ve helped him rise – something that would come back to haunt him in the presidential campaign. Rubio had come to the Senate with the support of one of the right’s biggest and most divisive power brokers, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, now head of the Heritage Foundation, who’d helped engineer Rubio’s success as a Tea Party candidate. Now Rubio began to distance himself from more-aggressive “outsider” freshman senators like Rand Paul, and later Ted Cruz, who turned anti-government obstructionism into his personal crusade. “If you notice, Rubio didn’t join the Tea Party caucus, even though that’s how he got elected,” says Alan Becker, the managing partner of the Miami law firm Becker and Poliakoff, where Rubio worked starting in 2003.
Turning away from DeMint, Rubio allied himself instead with Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, two of the most entrenched “moderate” Republicans, who tried to show Rubio the ropes in Washington, steering him toward the powerful Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, traditional springboards for presidential hopefuls. Rubio hungrily leapt at the opportunities afforded him. “He was a hot commodity,” says a Senate Republican staffer. “There was nationwide buzz about him, but the guy did not assume that because he was famous he knew everything. He kept his head down and worked.”
Yet if Rubio did have a blind spot, it was on the one issue he’d connected with all his life, and that, ironically, would also be a part of the undoing of his presidential ambitions: immigration. There are two ways to look at Rubio’s involvement in the 2013 debate on immigration reform: It was clearly an issue that, because of Rubio’s popularity with both the Tea Party conservatives and Hispanics, could give him a platform, but it was also the kind of all-in risk that went against Rubio’s basic political character. It required him to take an actual stand.
Rubio’s history on immigration had so far been, like much of the rest of him, a study in contradiction. While careful to never openly seem pro-immigration, he had been immigration advocates’ quiet ally in the Florida House. During his Senate run, however, Rubio tacked far to the right, defending Arizona’s draconian immigration law, only to backpedal several weeks later. He at times seemed pro-amnesty, then against it. Still, veteran Republicans like McCain and Graham, who are moderates on immigration, backed a comprehensive-reform agenda and saw Rubio as a potential ally. And in 2013, in what would later be cast as his central betrayal of Tea Party principles, Rubio agreed to join the bipartisan effort, which included Democrats Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez and became known as the Gang of Eight.
Rubio’s handling of the Gang of Eight negotiations might offer a window into his executive style. “He was the guy who would show up late, leave early and leave the dirty work to his staff,” recalls one aide who worked behind the scenes on the bill. “You’d have a situation where all the members would be in the room and a couple of senators would be arguing, and then Rubio’s staffer would be arguing, while Rubio would be sitting back with a Cheshire-cat grin on his face, watching.”
To the shock of many people who were involved with the bill, Rubio outsourced the bulk of the negotiations to a close friend and hired gun, Miami attorney Enrique Gonzalez. While hiring experts is far from unusual, Gonzalez is an attorney at one of the most prominent corporate immigration law firms in the country, and Rubio made him the head of his team. “Enrique’s role was to make sure the business community loved this bill and knew who it was who took care of them,” says the aide. “From a political standpoint, that was a smart play. But it was also incredibly irresponsible, a case study in the donor class controlling our politics. And what it says about what kind of president Rubio would be is quite frightening.” This is why Trump’s attacks on Rubio have resonated – “He’s right,” the staffer continues. “The establishment looks at him and says, ‘He’ll play ball.’ And the immigration bill is evidence of that.”
But few saw this aspect of Rubio’s work. Instead, he almost immediately became the face of immigration reform, upstaging established reform advocates in his party like Graham and McCain, who several people say resented the young senator’s star power. On the other hand, “everyone knew they needed Rubio because he was their connection to the Tea Party,” says the aide. “If he walked away, it would have killed the bill.”
But Rubio was careful to hedge, even as he went out selling the bill to Rush Limbaugh and others in the conservative media. “Rubio would go on these shows and say things that were inaccurate,” says the aide. According to some staffers, McCain would blow up at this – in one argument, an aide recalls other Republicans complaining that Rubio “spoke another language” than what he spoke to them. Later, at a press conference, Rubio tried to make a joke about it. “He was like, ‘I changed my mind!’ – there was almost something Hamlet-like about it all.”
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