In last week’s debate, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio had a point. He’s not the first presidential candidate to miss Senate votes. It’s impossible to run for president and have a perfect attendance record.
What Rubio really missed in the Senate was the chance to prove he could be a leader.
He tried once, on immigration reform. It was a colossal, comical disaster, and he never tried again.
After the Latino vote helped re-elect President Barack Obama, Rubio eyed a leadership role in passing immigration reform. His desire to take charge led him to resist being part of the emerging bipartisan “Gang” in December 2012, so he could craft his own set of bills with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
By the following month, he saw that the immigration reform train was leaving the station without him. And the Gang thought that Rubio, who was still considered a “Tea Party hero,” could help sell a deal to skeptical conservatives. Rubio joined what became known as the “Gang of Eight.”
When a bill was produced in April 2013, Rubio bravely championed it to a hostile conservative talk radio circuit. Slate reported: “Interview by interview, he ably defends amnesty from the charge that it is, in fact, amnesty … Rubio has gotten through the immigration bill’s launch day and wrenched the discussion on the right past amnesty, over to his own terms.”
But by the end of the month, he was telling conservatives that some of their criticisms were “valid.” In May, he circulated a memo to Senate staffers listing 21 concerns with the bill, making the nation’s top immigrant rights activist “anxious.”
In mid-June, he suggested he might not vote for the bill without changes to improve border security. Sen. Lindsey Graham was incredulous, telling The Huffington Post: “How do we put together a bill and then the guy who put it together says that he may not vote for it? I just don’t get what we’re doing here.”
In turn, he lost legislative clout within the Gang of Eight. Rubio joined with Sen. John Cornyn to support a poison pill amendment: making the path to citizenship contingent on first stopping 90 percent of illegal border crossings. Lead Democratic negotiator Sen. Chuck Schumer then went around Rubio and struck a deal with two other Republican senators, dropping the 90 percent demand in exchange for $30 billion in border security investment.
Yet Rubio, honorably, zig-zagged back to being a stout defender of the bill. On June 26, he delivered an amazing Senate floor speech in which he addressed “conservatives and Tea Party activists” and diligently debunked every bit of misinformation they were spreading. He voted for the bill the next day.
The day after that, Glenn Beck called Rubio “a piece of garbage.” Mocking Rubio’s comment that he agrees with the bill’s opponents on “virtually every other issue,” Beck compared him to an adulterer: “So I’m cheating on her with Chuck Schumer, but so what! … Every other issue we agree … I’m just trying to do the right thing for our marriage.”
Rubio had failed in his mission to convince conservatives to support the bill, while also angering immigration reform advocates by his public dithering.
Failing to douse conservative outrage made passage in the House a significant challenge. Instead of stepping up to that challenge, Rubio decided his leadership days were over.
He made a half-hearted attempt to goad the House into action in August, but in the summer he largely kept a low profile. In early October 2013, with the shutdown dominating the news, National Journal asked “What Happened To Marco Rubio?”
Then, toward the end the month, Rubio abandoned the Senate immigration bill entirely, telling the press that he did not support a House-Senate conference in which the Senate would present its bill.
Today, Rubio keeps his distance from his 2013 vote. He told Bloomberg that we shouldn’t even talk about a pathway to citizenship until “10 or 12 years” of heightened border security – a timeline that would conveniently come after a Rubio presidency. The only immigration position offered on his website is opposition to “sanctuary cities.”
The whole sorry episode is a case study in failed leadership. Mixed messages. Undercutting allies. Quitting, not leading, when faced with obstacles.
Missed votes is one thing. Other senators running for president – Barack Obama, John McCain, John Kerry – missed votes. You can’t stump in Iowa and vote in DC at the same time. That’s understandable.
But it’s not that Rubio simply missed votes because he’s on the trail. He’s missing votes because he gave up on his job. He gave up on finding legislative solutions because he couldn’t take the heat that inevitably comes with compromise, and he learned he didn’t have the skills to persuade skeptical conservatives to embrace compromise.
Rubio quit. He didn’t lead. Now he wants a promotion.