Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida won praise from the Republican establishment and lost tea-party support by playing a lead role in this year's push for immigration reform. Now he's turned that dynamic on its head by joining Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky at the forefront of a drive to shut down the government unless Obamacare is defunded.
Rubio's pendulum swing may or may not ultimately appease those angry about the pivotal help he provided to win passage of the Senate's comprehensive immigration bill, with its path to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants. What's already certain is that some establishment figures who applauded him on immigration, including Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, are now serving up disapproval. Other Republican critics of the shutdown threat include Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Richard Burr of North Carolina, as well as 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Business lobbyists are also dismissive, with several telling National Journal that Rubio & Co. are ignoring facts on the ground—to wit, a Democratic president and Senate. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer called the defunding effort "nuts." Commentary writer Peter Wehner, a White House aide during the Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II administrations, got personal with a column headlined "Marco Rubio's Folly."
What's more, Rubio may be sowing confusion about his political identity as he heads toward a widely expected run for president in 2016. Would he be an establishment contender, along the lines of a Chris Christie, Scott Walker, or Jeb Bush, or an insurgent like Paul or Cruz? "It appears right now as if the path is not clear for Rubio. And sometimes if one foot is in each camp, neither camp adopts you as their own," says University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala, an expert on the state's first-in-the-nation primary.
What set off Wehner was Rubio's assertion to radio host Mark Levin last week that "if you're willing to fund this thing, you can't possibly say you're against it." In other words, he'll vote against a bill to keep the government running unless the measure cuts off money for President Obama's health care law.
"So is that the new Rubio standard?" Wehner asks. "Are we to believe he supported every item funded in every budget bill he voted for while serving in the Florida Legislature? Or that in the future he'll support every program of every budget he votes for in the United States Senate?"
Wehner also takes issue with Rubio's damn-the-politics attitude toward a government shutdown unless the president agrees to defund Obamacare, and questions whether Rubio and the other members of what he calls "the Suicide Caucus" are tethered to reality, given that Obama and the Democratic Senate will never "pull the plug" on that signature achievement.
Being a ringleader on the road to a government shutdown could well be riskier than being a cheerleader for a path to citizenship. There are plenty of GOP presidential prospects who share Rubio's views on immigration, or have similar views, or will by 2015, when the party's dire need for Hispanic outreach and votes in a national race becomes impossible to ignore. Furthermore, whether it succeeds or fails, immigration reform will be in the rearview mirror by then and not all that salient to the national conversation.
"Time would do the best for Marco Rubio, more than anything," says Craig Robinson, a GOP strategist in Iowa, home of the first caucuses of the primary season. And he'll need that time if he's going to bring conservatives back into his fold. "I think it is going to be a while before they're mesmerized by Marco Rubio again," says Robinson, who runs a website called The Iowa Republican.
Rubio ran against Obamacare in his 2010 campaign and has been a consistent opponent of the Affordable Care Act. Also, after voting once for a stopgap budget measure to keep the government running, he has since voted against all such measures, called continuing resolutions. He's now saying he will vote for a second CR, due next month, but only if it defunds Obamacare. "There's a lot of grassroots support for this position. You've seen most of the conservative organizations supporting this, as well as leading conservatives outside of Congress saying that this is the right approach," says Rubio spokesman Alex Conant. He also says of Rubio, "It would be weird if he wasn't fighting to repeal Obamacare."
But that misses the point. Pretty much all the Republicans in Congress oppose the health care law. It's the government-shutdown threat most of them are questioning, because, unlike the outside groups and individuals, they are worried about the real-world impact of such a drastic development—on Americans and on the GOP.
Veteran Republican strategist Rich Galen says Rubio, Cruz, and Paul are showing a lack of seasoning by inviting such a confrontation. "The ramifications of something like that are far broader than what it sounds like," Galen says. He should know. He experienced the 1995-96 shutdown, and the political damage it did to his party, as a top aide to then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich.