Immigration seems to be doing some odd things to the conservative movement. Following this week’s reveal of a bipartisan reform outline in the Senate, public and press attention shifted quickly to Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who is more than a little bit of a rock star in conservative circles. This plan represents the culmination of a major shift in Sen. Rubio’s position– when running for Senate just two years ago, he had dismissed the idea of granting much of anything in the way of citizenship or related rights to illegal immigrants. (Incidentally, while in the Florida House of Representatives, Rubio proposed a DREAM Act-esque plan that would have cut tuition for undocumented students.) Conservative media figures, among them Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, responded positively, especially considered that the Senate plan involves a path to citizenship, which many on the right believe to be tantamount to amnesty (and we all know how Rush feels about that). So we can be forgiven for thinking that the conservative base may be falling in line with some form of comprehensive immigration.
Not so fast. After an interview with Rubio this past Tuesday (which was, by all accounts, a smashing success for the Senator), Rush felt compelled to post this clarification on his Web site (warning: full transcript ahead). Key quote: “nobody else has the guts to criticize Obama, and that’s what I was praising him for. I was not signaling that he converted me to amnesty.” And there’s the problem. For many on the right, including a large number of primary voters, anything approaching amnesty is heretical, as evidenced by major backlash in 2006-7 and continued unease with comprehensive reform. This, of course, runs right into the strong, almost fervent support Rubio has built up in conservative circles in recent years. It’s a tricky balancing act for the conservatives and the Republican Party, and no matter how it plays out, things will get interesting.