Marco Rubio's Impossible Task: Make Racism Palatable to Latinos

Marco Rubio's been getting a lot of play lately.

Marco Rubio's been getting a lot of play lately. Time Magazine plastered the freshman senator on its cover with "Republican Savior" printed in bright yellow. His Tuesday night response to the president's State of the Union was billed as a crucial moment for Republicans: the high profile anointing of the party's new face.

But for a speech from the man supposed to lead a fractured and beleaguered GOP into a more colorful America, it clung tightly to familiar Republican themes. Though the general consensus seems to be that a GOP shift on immigration led by a young Latino senator will be enough to show the country that not all Republicans are rich white men named Mitt, the opening acts from Rubio do not amount to a move to the center. In fact, on nearly every issue he's remained quite tightly in line with the party's far right.

This makes one wonder if the Florida freshman's task as the GOP's front man is less about leading the Republican party toward a rebirth and new constituencies, and more about testing exactly how much the party can manage to stay the same without dying. Rubio has crafted himself as an indispensible implement in this pursuit. But it's a posture teetering on an edge and nobody's sure Rubio can pull it off.

"My parents immigrated here in pursuit of the opportunity to improve their life and give their children the chance at an even better one," Rubio said on Tuesday night. "They made it to the middle class, my dad working as a bartender and my mother as a cashier and a maid. I didn't inherit any money from them."

The storyline is a profound divergence from most GOP leaders and presidential hopefuls. But it's not at all clear what Rubio's identity changes, or what a more diverse Republican lineup will mean at the polls. No doubt Mitt Romney's oratorical brutishness on immigration locked in his particularly pitiful performance with Latinos, Asians and many others, but the party as a whole has been bashing immigrants for more than two decades and a few new faces won't heal that harm.

"The rhetoric and the image do matter, but only if it's connected to policy," says Matt Barreto, a political scientist at the University of Washington who studies race and elections. "Latinos think Republicans are racists. That's where they're starting. You can't just change what you say and who says it and not change policy."

Rubio's policy positions are standard-line tea party Republican, circa 2010.

"More government isn't going to help you get ahead. It's going to hold you back," he said on Tuesday, wasting little time establishing his conservative chops. He lambasted government spending, went in on taxes, Obamacare and the safety net, and took swipes at reproductive choice, "moral breakdown" and the "mistakes" of single mothers. Then yesterday, Rubio added to his arch-conservative credentials when he joined 21 other Republican senators to vote against the Violence Against Women Act.

So if Rubio sounds like any other tea party-era Republican, just with a very different origin story, what's left to bring on new constituencies, namely Latinos? A recent Pew Hispanic Center poll indicates that Latinos are more liberal on nearly every issue, with wide margins believing that government is a driver of positive change. Yet the Republican establishment thinks a shift on immigration alone will get them Latino votes.

"We can also help our economy grow if we have a legal immigration system that allows us to attract and assimilate the world's best and brightest," Rubio said on Tuesday. "We need a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally."

But even as the press narrates the 41-year old Cuban American Senator as the new middle on immigration, the truth is that he's engaged in a white-knuckled cling to Republican doctrine on this issue as well. And he's volunteered to produce two impossibly contradictory results: delivery of a reform bill that's narrow enough to garner House Republican support, and a whole bunch of new Republicans voting Latinos.

"It's very precarious," said Barreto, the political scientist. "If he has the influence within his party to deliver votes on this issue, then he does have an opportunity to come out of this as a very favorable politician within the Latino community. Latinos know many Republicans are trying to block reform, and if Rubio unclogs it, it's an opportunity for him."

But Baretto and others say that it's not just any kind of reform that will work to change voter affinities. Polls show that when communities express support for immigration reform, they mean a bill that includes a path to citizenship.

That's a problem for Rubio because House Republicans indicated last week that they would not vote for a path to citizenship. That may be why Rubio has now adopted the tired GOP line that the border must be a fortress before any immigrant gets a green card.

"But first," Rubio said on Tuesday, before immigrants move toward citizenship, "we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws."

Immigrant rights advocates see the border-first demand as the seed of destruction for a reform bill. And for many, Rubio's insistence on the line raises questions about how serious he really is.

"We don't know if this is just an attempt to change the face, speak in Spanish, add diversity," said Marielena Hincapie, the head of the National Immigration Law Center. "Is it a window dressing or is it actual policy change? Have [Republicans] crossed the line where they'll sit down on a path to citizenship?"

Democrats will likely shun a bill that doesn't include clarity about how applicants become citizens and even if such a law passes, it's not clear that Republicans can pick up Latino votes with a watered down version of reform.

Quite aware of the hard road ahead, Rubio is trying to tamp down expectations, hoping that if somehow he fails either at pulling enough Republicans into a reform agreement or at getting enough Latinos to come the way of the GOP, he'll still have a chance at a political future.

"If anyone is under the illusion that suddenly our percentage of Hispanic voters will double, let me dissuade them," Rubio told Time.

The young Republican may have an impossible task no matter how it's cut, and he's done himself no favors. He is to lead Republicans forward on immigration and more broadly into a racially changed country by acting as a sort of gatekeeper of the political status quo loathed by the constituencies his party needs. And in that arrangement, the freshman from Florida is shaky at best.

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