Marco and the K St. Restoration: I went to see Marco Rubio’s town hall this afternoon in Salem, New Hampshire. It was only a few miles from my hotel–I really had no excuse. I wanted to find out: Was Rubio really as slick and insubstantial in this setting as John Edwards? Answer: No. He’s slicker. He’s slicker, in part, because he at least seems a bit spontaneous,** with a slightly goofy, human quality. I admit this is hard to judge seeing him once — maybe he always lets his 8-year-old son sit on his stool during his stump speech. But it’s hard to deny the appeal.
When it comes to substance, Rubio draws on an inventory of well-prepared rhetorical modules, with just enough policy to sound sophisticated, that can be inserted where necessary to handle, say, the how-would-you-handle-ISIS question (Sunni ground army!) or disability benefits (get rid of phony claims!). There’s not much sacrifice involved in any of Rubio’s proposals — even avoiding budget apocalypse, which he claims to be very concerned about, is just a matter of raising the retirement age and slowing benefit hikes for the well-off. Nothing that hasn’t been floating around Washington for years. There’s a heavy emphasis on electability. Big, difficult questions (like robots taking everyone’s jobs) are ignored. Tellingly, however, Rubio has added a Trump Module, where he alludes to anger at stagnant wages.
He’s got an immigration module too. It ignores Rubio’s “Gang of 8” amnesty push while adopting what seems to be an Enforcement First framework, in which “nothing” happens, amnesty-wise, until the border is “secure.” Everything depends on what “nothing” and “secure” mean, of course. But those crucial seams are effectively buried. Rubio prefaces all this with a digression on ISIS, and how it’s changed the immigration debate: Because our top priority has to be to “keep ISIS out of this country.” It’s an absurd, transparent attempt to put off confronting the Gang of 8 and the effects of a low-skilled influx on living standards. But the audience loves it. The ISIS digression gets the biggest applause of the day.
All of this is mildly terrifying. If Rubio’s a “robot,” as many have charged, he’s a sophisticated new model robot with simulated humanistic elements and a charm algorithm. And if he still seems insubstantial–which he does–it’s a higher level of insubstantial than you expect: You don’t get the impression he’s actually thought through these problems, but he knows his modules. He’s the ideal choice for Student Body President of America, the best band at Band Camp. And–as those who remember Gary Hart’s 1984 post-Iowa surge know–that may be good enough for Rubio to do very, very, well in New Hampshire, unless someone rudely interrupts him.
Why isn’t that someone Trump? Trump’s been attacking Ted Cruz lately, and leaving Rubio alone. Why? Cruz isn’t going to win New Hampshire. Rubio has a chance–certainly a chance to come so close he’s proclaimed the winner by the press. And Cruz isn’t going to destroy the nascent, effective populist insurgency that anti-amnesty activists and trade skeptics, led by Sen. Jeff Sessions, have built over the past three year–and that Trump is demonstrating has substantial, intense support among voters of both parties. Rubio will. Electing Rubio, after killing the Gang of 8 bill, is like marching against the Vietnam War in the 60s and winding up with Richard Nixon running things.
This is a more difficult case to make than, say, arguing against Jeb Bush. Bush is explicit about his support for mass immigration and amnesty. Rubio has now effectively wormed his way into a position where championing mass immigration and amnesty would involve breaking what seems to be an explicit policy pledge. But anyone who has followed Rubio knows that’s exactly what he’ll do. a) He’s done it before, having opposed amnesty when seeking his Senate seat only to become its front man on arriving in Washington; b) He dissembled when necessary to push the Gang of 8 bill, why not dissemble now? c) The GOP establishment thinks that’s exaclty what he’ll do; d) His retreat from the Gang of 8 has been grudging and weaselly, always giving as little ground as he thinks he can get away with until he discovers he has to give a little more; e) He still hasn’t repudiated the bill, let alone apologized for it; and most important, f) actually achieving an Enforcement First solution would mean standing up to the Democrats, who will demand quick legalization, and the bulk of the GOP Congressional caucus, who will be happy to settle for a fig-leaf of enforcement they can try to sell their voters (not unlike the fig leaf added to the Gang of 8 by the for-show-only Corker-Hoeven “double the border patrol” amendment). The current flash mob of GOP representatives streaming into Rubio’s camp suggests they recognize him as someone who won’t make their lives difficult — when that’s exactly what is required.
Rubio’s not going to drive Jeff Sessions from the capital. But you can count on the combination of President Rubio and Speaker Ryan to quickly pass an amnesty bill that (like the Gang of 8) contains only the most chimerical guarantees of new enforcement measures. You can also expect them to promote and defend trade, including “trade in services” that involves foreign workers performing those services on American soil. And what about the Sessionsesque suggestion that immigration levels actually be lowered? “We have a better chance of discovering time travel than getting Rubio-Ryan to take up [an] immigration-reduction bill,” one Senate immigration advisor told me. Corporate lobbyists will be in the saddle, and the promising Sessions movement will have effectively been defeated — probably permanently, given how mass immigration creates ethnic lobbies for more mass immigration. Historians will get tenure trying to explain how this happened so suddenly. Was it similar to what happened to the Bimetalists? Maybe Trump can become a columnist for the Washington Examiner. Dave Brat will be a trivia question.
In short, for the Sessions movment–and a particular vision of America, in which even unskilled, non-bright citizens can work a full day and earn a respectable living–Marco Rubio is a state-of-the art K-Street kill shot, a sudden existential threat. We may have only a few days to recognize this.
** — There was a snowstorm in the forecast yesterday. After some lame joking by Rubio about how he was not responsible for the weather, an audience member suggested it was Trump’s fault. “Make America Snow Again,” Rubio giggled. If that was pre-planned, then I really am a total patsy in the hands of stage managers.