Marco Rubio, who announced his presidential campaign this week, is supposedly facing an uphill battle for the Republican nomination in part because he was a co-author of the bipartisan Senate immigration bill. But, with Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, I think he is one of the three Republicans most likely to win.
Why won’t tea partyers and other conservatives destroy his candidacy based on his former position on immigration? For the answer, go back to Mitt Romney’s experience in 2012, when many thought he had no chance of getting the Republican nomination because of his approval of a Massachusetts health care law that was compared to Obamacare.
Both immigration and health care work as symbolic, not substantive, issues for most Republican party actors – those who have the biggest interest and most important say on the nomination – and for most Republican rank-and-file voters.
Substantive issues involve policies that directly affect a constituency within the party. Gun activists in the Republican Party have well-organized groups to fight for them, and the people who care about gun policy are mostly gun owners themselves. These issues don’t have to invoke narrow self-interest, but the people who care about them in the party really care about the details of public policy in that area.
Symbolic issues, on the other hand, are mainly about “us” vs. “them.” The details, the facts and even the broad policies don’t matter. The crucial thing is being on the right side.
Party-aligned interest groups focused on these policies either don’t exist or are minor factors. When an issue such as health care and immigration becomes symbolic, the normal substantive battles within the party may be shunted aside or displaced altogether.
So pro-immigration business interests still work within the party for laws they favor but are drowned out in the public debate, while doctors and hospitals wind up in some cases having to operate outside of the Republican Party to have any influence on health care policy.
But a politician who is on the “wrong” side of issues such as immigration doesn’t solve the problem by flip-flopping and aligning his or her position to match that of organized groups inside the party.
Instead, the goal is convince the party that the politician is on “our” side – to stick to the “us” vs. “them” script.
That’s why it was so damaging for Rick Perry in 2011, for example, when he criticized opponents of immigration reform as having “no heart.” Contrast that with Romney’s handling of his health care position in 2012: Somehow, Obamacare was a disaster even though his Massachusetts reform was similar.
Romney, in effect, flattered Republicans by reassuring them they were the good guys, regardless of any minor disagreement on the legislation.
So all Rubio has to do on immigration is convince his (former) opponents that he is one of them.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics.