Identity Crisis: Marco Rubio’s Straddle Between ‘Conservative’ and ‘Moderate’

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) is having a bit of an identity crisis: He, his campaign, and his friendly scribes over at National Review claim that he is a “conservative”—but an establishment Republican in Nevada just endorsed him as a “moderate.”

“The below piece from National Review’s senior political correspondent is essential reading for anyone & everyone following the 2016 campaign. Please read all of it & then share with your favorite conservatives,” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said in an email blast on Tuesday afternoon with the full text of and a link to a story from National Review’s Jim Geraghty.

The headline of Geraghty’s piece is: “Marco Rubio Is Plenty Conservative.” It makes the case that Rubio is conservative, despite his 2013 decision to abandon the promise he made Floridians back in the 2010 U.S. Senate race that he would never support amnesty for illegal aliens if elected and become the lead pitchman for the Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) led “Gang of Eight” amnesty effort.

“It is now axiomatic that Marco Rubio is the ‘establishment’ favorite in the 2016 Republican primaries, due for a collision with a conservative alternative such as Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or Ben Carson,” Geraghty wrote.

That statement is true. Rubio is the new establishment frontrunner—he has been for a couple months—now that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Rubio’s mentor, has slipped away in the polls. Bush is fighting to regain that position, but it’s unclear if he ever will.

Rubio is backed by several major billionaires, including Paul Singer—who’s in favor of amnesty for illegal aliens, for abortion, and for gay marriage. As such, Rubio’s immigration position, his foreign policy position, his trade position, and several of his other political and policy positions—and his political behavior—clearly indicate that where is competing for the nomination is in the “moderate” lane of the GOP.

Others in that lane, like Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, proudly embrace their viewpoints and where they fall in the GOP.

But Rubio clearly wants to have it both ways: Be viewed as “acceptable” by the political and donor class inside the beltway in Washington, D.C. and by the television tycoons on the island of Manhattan, while also being viewed by the people in Iowa, and South Carolina, and New Hampshire, and Nevada, and elsewhere as some kind of “conservative.”

Rubio’s partners at National Review—from which his campaign has literally hired staff, bringing aboard Geraghty’s now former colleague Patrick Brennan earlier in the cycle for a paid position—were willing to help him make that claim.

“But if Rubio really represents the new GOP “establishment,” then the fight is over and the conservatives won,” Geraghty wrote. “Despite infuriating many grassroots conservatives by pushing the failed Gang of Eight immigration-reform bill and advocating a path to legalization, Rubio has an indisputably conservative record as a senator.”

Geraghty continues by detailing many of Rubio’s positions on things ranging from tax policy, to spending policy, to marriage, to the Export-Import Bank and more, Geragthy continues by writing that: “Across the board, Rubio’s stances, policy proposals, and rhetoric fall squarely within the bounds of traditional conservatism.”

In the middle of the piece, too, curiously Geraghty argues that Rubio “deserves every bit of grief he’s getting for ruling out a path to citizenship in 2010, and then supporting a bill that would have created such a path in 2013” on the Gang of Eight amnesty bill and that “right-wing opposition” to it was “well-founded.”

But then he amazingly attempts to defend that Rubio isn’t an open-borders advocate.

“It’s rewriting history to call Rubio a squish on border security or an advocate for an ‘open border,’ as Rand Paul has charged,” Geraghty wrote.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R., Ala.) contends Rubio “led the effort to open the floodgates.” But the Florida senator has always agreed with calls for greater border security. While the Gang of Eight bill was still making its way through Congress, Rubio argued that it should be amended to include specific enforcement procedures preventing another influx of illegal immigrants. He helped negotiate an adopted amendment that would have roughly doubled the border-patrol force to 40,000 agents while completing 700 miles of fence on the nation’s southern border.

What actually happened back then is that Rubio spent months inaccurately publicly claiming that his bill was not “amnesty” and that it secured the border up front before giving away the farm to illegal aliens. Later, well into the process, Rubio eventually admitted that his bill with Schumer and other hardline liberal Democrats and establishment pro-amnesty Republicans would grant amnesty to illegal aliens—and that said amnesty would be granted before any extra border security or law enforcement measures were implemented.

“First comes the legalization. Then come the measures to secure the border,” Rubio said on the Spanish-language network Univision.

What’s perhaps most interesting about this effort to, extraordinarily late in the 2016 campaign, rebrand himself as a “conservative” now—after all that’s come out over the past several years—is that one of Rubio’s biggest endorsements just blabbed an admission that Rubio is no conservative at all.

Former Clark County, Nevada, commissioner Bruce Woodbury said Rubio is a non-conservative “moderate.”

“An essential factor is winning the election in November,” Woodbury said according to the Los Angeles Times. “He has all the essentials — a powerful life story, he’s moderate. He can appeal to all segments of the electorate.”

The Times piece zoned in on whether Rubio or his chief rival Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) would be able to win Nevada’s Mormon vote. Woodbury, a Mormon, is, according to the Times, “so admired in southern Nevada that the I-215 beltway around Las Vegas is named after him.”

But that presents yet another issue where Rubio has changed in his story: Rubio was a Mormon himself for some time, when he lived in Nevada growing up but has since left the Mormon church for the Catholic Church.

“No, Rubio doesn’t consider himself Mormon anymore, but he was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when his family lived in Las Vegas and he was 8 years old,” the Washington Post wrote earlier this year. “The church considers people to be members if they have been baptized, regardless of how active they are, unless they formally ask for their name to be removed from church records.”

It’s unclear if Rubio formally asked to be removed from Mormon Church records. He’s never made it clear if he has or not.

In a recent interview in Christianity Today, Rubio sought to distance himself from his Mormon roots—while still praising the Mormons he wants to vote for him.

“To be clear I was nine or 10 years old so I understood the theology at the depth a nine or 10 year old could understand,” Rubio replied when asked about his time as a Mormon.

I have tremendous respect for [Mormons]. I don’t in any way want to disparage—in any way. I have tremendous admiration for what the LDS church does, particularly the strength of families. I have a lot of family members, the majority of my family in Nevada (which is more than half of my family) that joined the LDS church—and many good friends that are as well. I have tremendous respect for the church and in particular for the values that we all share in common that they defend. The theological distinction—I’ll leave to others. As I said, I’m not nearly as familiar with LDS theology as I am with Catholicism or that of other Protestant denominations. But, I have tremendous respect for many people who are of the Mormon faith. The one thing that really attracted my mother at that time was the strength of the family unit in the LDS church and how it is the centerpiece of life in the LDS church. It’s something I continue to admire greatly.

Ultimately, all this stretching across various sectors of the electorate has put him in a very tough spot in early states around the country. A recent Wall Street Journal article from late November noted that Rubio is aiming to “straddle” between being a Washington, D.C., “insider” and being a political “outsider.”

“This tension between Rubio the insider and Rubio the outsider is in some ways his biggest challenge—positioning himself as a bridge candidate, while some of his rivals target evangelicals and tea-party conservatives and others try to rally the establishment,” the Journal’s Byron Tau and Patrick O’Connor wrote.


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