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What Was Marco Rubio Thinking?

Last month I wrote a blog post arguing that Senator Marco Rubio would be better off if immigration reform was not signed into law. That way he could blame President Barack Obama for its failure, and not have to face the wrath of primary voters who hate amnesty. (Blaming Obama would be erroneous but politically effective: "The president wanted a bill that was too liberal, so it failed," or whatever).

But this argument only begs the question of why Rubio began pushing so hard for immigration reform in the first place. In Politico, Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei have a story about what they call Rubio's "stumble" on the issue. His poll numbers are falling, his Senate colleagues have turned against him, and his political acumen is being called into question. Allen and VandeHei write: 

Some top conservatives are questioning Rubio’s judgment on immigration, arguing that he was “played” by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other Democrats in the Senate’s Gang of Eight immigration working group. Rubio refused to be interviewed for this column. But POLITICO’s Senate specialist, Manu Raju, cornered him in the Capitol on Wednesday to get his take. “The Senate bill has passed the Senate,” he said. “What’s there to advocate for?” Rubio, a leader of the Gang of Eight, refused to join the rest of that gang in a meeting Tuesday with technology industry leaders to discuss putting pressure on the House. “I don’t think the best way to get a result for immigration reform in this country is to somehow try to muscle the House,” he said. The House, Rubio said, deserves “the time and space…to come up with their ideas about how to reform immigration—and I hope they will—but that’s up to them.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Gang of Eight, said Rubio’s silent treatment is understandable—but not the best way to pass a bill. “I have been there [in the House]: When a bunch of senators came over, it wasn’t a good news day,” Graham said. But he added: “If he’s got some influence in the House, now is a good time to use it.”

The piece also lays out the desperation among Rubio backers:

In background conversations, Rubio allies spin elaborate theories about how he might be threading the perfect political needle, getting credit for winning Senate passage without owning the responsibility for the complexities of implementation—and certain rage from some parts of the right—if it actually became law.

"Elaborate" is certainly a nice euphemism for this theory. Regardless, the interesting question is what Rubio was thinking. The piece makes it seem as if he misjudged conservative support in the Senate and among conservative elites such as Rich Lowry and Bill Kristol. This seems plausible. After the election it certainly appeared as if more Republicans were going to get behind immigration reform. (Predicting Bill Kristol's stand is a trickier task.)

But what's most useful about the Politico story is that it inadvertently explains Rubio's poor political decision-making. Just take these two paragraphs: 

1. “The Senate passed a bill that he was essential to, and his colleagues now see him as a guy who got something important done,” said a Rubio ally who would be a key part of any presidential campaign. “The business, financial, tech and evangelical groups were for the bill—that’s all pretty good stuff. He showed political strength by not kowtowing to the ... right."

2. He got into the immigration fight because he authentically believes the law needs to change—and because he knows that if he ever wants to run for the White House, he cannot look like a policy chump. 

First, we have the idea that "showing political strength" by pissing off the right wing gives one a certain gravitas. And then we have the need to not look like a policy "chump." Call me crazy, but I do not think these are the two things one needs to win a Republican primary. What were Obama's big policy achievements again? Romney even won his nomination by disowning his biggest policy victory. And pissing off the right is not going to get him his primary funding, especially in the age of super PACs.

But the crucial point isn't that these moves are irrational. Rather, it's that Rubio may very well have believed they were rational. Certainly plenty of people in Washington, as seen by/quoted in the Politico piece, think so. One of them may very well have told Rubio, "stand up to the right wing and win a big policy victory and you will be set." I wish those were the two things that decided Republican presidential primaries, but in this era they most certainly are not.

Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.