The New York Times
By Jeremy W. Peters and Ashley Parker
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Joyce Kaufman sat in her radio studio here the other day and said the first word that comes to mind when she thinks of Marco Rubio. “A chameleon,” she scoffed.
Ms. Kaufman, a conservative talk show host in South Florida, embraced the 39-year-old politician in 2010, a time when many Tea Party activists viewed him as the future leader of their movement.
But after arriving in Washington, Mr. Rubio committed what many of his earliest supporters considered the ultimate betrayal: He became a key architect of legislation that would have overhauled the immigration system and given 11 million people here illegally the opportunity to become citizens.
The business and donor class of the Republican Party heralded him for it. Time magazine declared him “The Republican Savior” on its cover.But as fury built on the right and conservatives blocked the legislation in the House, where it eventually died, Mr. Rubio backed away. Now, as he seeks the presidency, he is taking an even harder line, talking of the need to begin deportations before there can be any real fix to the immigration system.
Mr. Rubio, 44, again finds his shifting views under attack, caught up in the anti-immigration passions roiling his party.
“Whatever you need him to be, Marco Rubio will be,” Ms. Kaufman said. “And he will be good at it.”
Few politicians today have benefited more from the power of populist hostility than Mr. Rubio. But five years after Tea Party energy propelled him to national office, distrust from those voters could prove to be one of his biggest impediments to securing the Republican presidential nomination.
The immigration question cuts to his core as one of the Republican Party’s most promising rising stars. Skeptics see his evolution as a politically shrewd maneuver of convenience. He sees it as a pragmatic exercise in conservative leadership.
“The question comes up over and over again: Can you trust Marco Rubio to govern as a conservative?” said David Bossie, the president of Citizens United, the activist conservative organization that targets Democrats and Republicans it deems too moderate and unprincipled. “That’s really what Marco Rubio is contending with as he runs for president.”
Supporting a Path
At the time, it looked like a smart move, both for Mr. Rubio and his party.
Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, had just lost the election after he received the smallest share of the Hispanic vote in modern presidential elections: a mere 27 percent. Party leaders commissioned an audit of their situation, which concluded that the party would have to substantially improve its standing with Hispanics if it ever hoped to occupy the White House again.
Mr. Rubio, who harbored presidential ambitions, saw an opportunity: to be part of a major legislative endeavor that could forge the kind of compromise that had become so rare in the nation’s capital, the kind that conveys both seriousness and a sense of accomplishment.
The Democrats saw the boyish and charismatic Cuban-American as an eloquent spokesman and partner who could help them sell an immigration deal to conservatives on Capitol Hill.
A freshman senator, Mr. Rubio had spent much of his time on Capitol Hill building up his foreign policy portfolio. With assignments on the Senate Foreign Relations and Senate Intelligence Committees, he traveled to war zones including Libya and Afghanistan, and attended global conferences on national security.
Involving himself in an effort as combustible as immigration would be a huge risk for any Republican, but especially for one who owed his political career to the Tea Party. Yet the issue was personal for Mr. Rubio, a son of Cuban immigrants who had grown up in a Miami neighborhood where Spanish was often the first and only language used.
But a hard truth remained: Many of the people who had helped send Mr. Rubio to Washington did not want him to go there and get along with Democrats.
“That became a disappointment to the Tea Party activists who thought if you’re not up there all day saying harsh things about the enemy, then you’re not doing your job,” said Dick Armey, the former House majority leader and an early Tea Party figure. “His manner was, ‘You’ve got to learn how to work with these people.’ ”
Mr. Rubio had already been working on his own immigration plan. At the outset, he favored the approach preferred by conservatives: tackling the issue in a series of smaller bills rather than one broad package.
But Senators Chuck Schumer of New York and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, two of the Democrats in what would become known, with Mr. Rubio and five other lawmakers, as the bipartisan Gang of Eight, lobbied him hard to join their immigration group.
After seeing a Florida news report in which Mr. Rubio said young undocumented immigrants were in the country through no fault of their own, Mr. Durbin invited him to a meeting in his Senate office in May 2012. The Florida senator was wary, saying he felt many Democrats were using immigration as a political wedge issue. He said he trusted Mr. Durbin but was still noncommittal.
Mr. Durbin continued with the hard sell later that year in the Senate gym, lobbying Mr. Rubio while the Florida lawmaker pedaled a stationary bike. By the time the 113th Congress began in January 2013, Mr. Rubio was in.
The process took months, and the cost of admission to the group was politically fraught on both sides. The Republicans had to agree to support some path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the country — a nonstarter for many conservatives — and the Democrats had to agree to much stronger security along the nation’s southern border. Mr. Rubio, said top aides who worked with the group, never had any problem with the path to citizenship — a provision viewed as treason by his party’s grass-roots base.
That issue is nagging at Mr. Rubio today as Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, his rival in the presidential race and an opponent of the immigration bill, has seized on it as proof that Mr. Rubio is not conservative enough on the issue. On Thursday, in an exchange between the two campaigns that quickly escalated, Mr. Cruz accused Mr. Rubio of “trying to jam this amnesty down the American people’s throats.”
Asked about the recent clash between the two, Mr. Schumer said Mr. Rubio had never been ambivalent about granting a path to citizenship.
“The facts are the facts,” he said. “Senator Cruz was always against the path to citizenship, and Senator Rubio was for it. He was involved in crafting the path as it went through the whole process.”
Democrats wanted the full path, from legal status to citizenship, to take no more than 10 years. Mr. Rubio pushed to make it a bit longer — a 13-year path that ended up in the final bill.
Mr. Rubio also wanted undocumented immigrants to have to pass an English-language test in the middle of their path to citizenship, which the Democrats opposed. Ultimately, the final bill required only undocumented immigrants pursuing green cards — a step much later in the process — to show that they were studying English, something many conservative critics denounced as insufficiently tough.
At first, Mr. Rubio was the perfect pitchman for the bill, taking on the role of conservative salesman with gusto. He became a regular on Fox News to push the cause. He made his case on conservative talk radio to Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham. He did the Sunday-morning news programs — in both English and Spanish.
He infused the complicated immigration bill with his uplifting, easy-to-understand personal narrative — the son of a bartender and a maid, achieving the American dream.
He spoke passionately and regularly from the Senate floor. “This most certainly isn’t about gaining support for future office,” he said once, rather presciently. “Many conservative commentators and leaders, people who I deeply respect and with whom I agree on virtually every other issue, are disappointed about my involvement in this debate.”
Behind the scenes, he and his staff were working hard to convince influential conservatives that the senator’s work was not a betrayal. He held meetings with leaders at conservative think tanks like the Heritage Action Fund. He briefed journalists who were most likely to be skeptics at places like The Washington Examiner and National Review about what would be in the bill.
It did not always have the desired effect.
“What still rubs a lot of the opponents the wrong way is that Rubio and his team engaged in all the evasions and misleading salesmanship that inevitably come with this sort of legislation,” said Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, citing, for instance, the strength of provisions requiring that immigrants learn English. He received updates by phone and in person from Mr. Rubio throughout the process.
Slowly, Mr. Rubio began publicly undermining his own legislation, at least in the eyes of his colleagues and their staffs.
Gang of Eight staff members said they had seen two competing factions (“Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” quipped one) in Mr. Rubio’s operation. There was the version they saw in private meetings and Mr. Rubio’s policy team, always working hard and well prepared. At the same time, there was the public Mr. Rubio and his communications and political shop, subtly casting doubt on the bill.
But the bill’s supporters needed him. And whenever he was pressed, Mr. Rubio argued that, as the senator with Tea Party credibility whose job was to sell the plan to the conservative base, he needed some cover and distance.
“I don’t know what you want me to do,” several Senate aides recalled Mr. Rubio saying. “We’re getting a lot of flak from the right wing, and this bill isn’t going anywhere if I can’t sell it.”
On the day the Senate finally passed the bill with broad bipartisan support in late June 2013, Mr. Rubio made his final impassioned pitch. Speaking on the Senate floor, he read from the poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty, before finally concluding: “Here, in America, generations of unfulfilled dreams will finally come to pass. And that’s why I support this reform. Not just because I believe in immigrants, but because I believe in America even more.”
When Mr. Rubio was done, his colleagues surrounded him, patting his back and telling him how proud they were.
But when the senators filed off the floor for an ebullient news conference to celebrate the bill’s hard-won passage, the Gang of Eight knew that Mr. Rubio had already moved on.
The senator — without whom, many believed, the legislation would never have been possible — did not show up.
Blame From the Base
Mr. Rubio encountered a vitriolic backlash from his party’s grass-roots base. Activists wrote a song set to the tune of “The Candy Man” from the film “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” called “The Amnesty Man.”
Glenn Beck, the conservative radio host, called him “a piece of garbage” on the air and accused the senator of going to Washington not to disrupt the establishment, but rather to join it.
Even efforts on the right to help him did not always go as planned. Sensing the bill would be a major liability for one of the party’s rising stars, Americans for Prosperity, a group backed by the billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch, wanted to give Mr. Rubio some cover. The group invited him to speak at a conference it held shortly after the Senate passed the immigration bill. But when the senator stepped up to speak, he was heckled.
Ms. Kaufman, the Florida talk radio host, recalled how she was so outraged by Mr. Rubio’s immigration work that she started rallying other incensed conservatives in the area. In one protest, they marched outside the senator’s Miami office carrying a black coffin — a mock funeral procession for the American worker.
The cause of death: a broken heart.
She then reflected on whether conservatives could trust him enough to be their president.
There was little doubt, she said, that he would work hard to gain their trust, just as he had done with her five years ago when she was initially skeptical of him.
“Marco was the one,” she said in an interview from her studio here the other day, recalling when he was running in the Senate primary in 2010 and seeking to shore up conservative support.
“And Marco started attending all the Tea Party rallies. And Marco met with every Tea Party group. We could call Marco and get a sit-down with him.”
He went on the show about a half a dozen times during his campaign.
But after the immigration bill, “he stopped taking our calls,” she said.
He has not been on her program since.
(Jeremy W. Peters reported from West Palm Beach, and Ashley Parker from Washington.)