Republicans fear they just can't win in the immigration reform debate – and they're right.
The bipartisan immigration solution proposed by Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), which includes a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, is something the party badly needs to appear more moderate in the run-up to the 2016 presidential race. But granting illegal residents citizenship, a practice critics call "amnesty," is incredibly unpopular in many House Republicans' congressional districts.
Rubio has bound the party's presidential ambitions to big-ticket immigration reforms in 2016, no doubt envisioning himself as the one at the helm. As the ringleader of the bipartisan group, Rubio has gained a significant advantage in the upcoming 2016 Republican primaries. Not only will he be the only candidate able to point to a major bipartisan legislative package, the senator is getting "favorable to glowing reviews from previously hard-line opponents of comprehensive immigration reform." Anyone willing to challenge him on that accomplishment will look incredibly xenophobic.
Meanwhile, moderate GOP members of the federal legislature are terrified of what will happen if they endorse Rubio's plan, and for good reason: ruthless gerrymandering has made their seats safe against Democrats, but it has also made them vulnerable to primary challenges from the right. Those far-right types have a habit of making statements and taking positions so extreme they blow safe elections in heavily Republican districts.
The only Republicans left safe in these scenarios are House whackos who have already kicked out the mainstream GOP establishment, and time and changing social attitudes will doubtless see to them.
This is a smart strategy for Rubio and Republicans who are scurrying like rats to bail from the rapidly sinking U.S.S. Tea Party, at least on social issues. It may prove disastrous for their legislative wing.
But what choice does the GOP have? The worst option would have been to do nothing and let the White House take all the credit for proposing an immigration package.
And let's be clear: immigration reform will not gather Latino votes for the average Republican, no matter what Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) thinks. The age of old white dudes is over. What passing a reform package will do is establish Rubio as a credible presidential candidate. Rubio isn't the only Republican who can win independent votes – New Jersey Governor Chris Christie could definitely do that – but he is the only Republican who can reverse the race card against a probable non-white or non-male Democratic candidate in 2016 (if a white guy like Biden ends up being the Democratic nominee, even better). Additionally, he is probably the only Republican interested in the race who can point out significant bipartisan chops while still winning a primary dominated by the fringes of the party.
Unfortunately for Rubio, his far-right positions on everything else may alienate voters faster than Paul Ryan's magic budget ever did. So relying on Rubio isn't even a safe strategy for 2016.
There is one out, and only one out: the party at large needs to re-approach the center in a careful and serious manner, and not just on immigration. The White House is everything. If they lose in 2016, it will be irrelevant whether they can continue to hold the House – it will mean a sustained 16 years of Democratic control of the biggest soapbox in the country, and a permanent defeat for the current incarnation of the Republican Party. Voters are sick of Congressional stonewalling, grandstanding, and obstructionism – and the longer the Republicans are limited to control of the lower house and filibustering in the Senate, the more voters will believe Congressional inaction is solely due to Republicans putting a wedge under the legislative wheel.
Can the party do that? I doubt it.
Rubio's immigration plan is absolutely fantastic for Rubio's political future, and gives him personally the best shot at winning the Republican nomination in 2016. But it won't help the GOP accomplish the goal of wresting the country from Democrats.