Rubio-Cruz in 2013!

As it looks to revive its electoral fortunes on the national level, what the Republican Party desperately needs is a Rubio-Cruz ticket—not for 2016, or not just for 2016, but now, in 2013.

As conservative Republicans continue to defect from Marco Rubio’s “Gang of Eight” immigration deal, he and Ted Cruz are emerging as the opposing faces of an internecine battle splitting the party. This needs to stop, now, and they are the only ones who can stop it.

The best thing the two senators could do for their party, and for the country, is to sit down and hammer out their own immigration compromise. Call it Rubio-Cruz or Cruz-Rubio. Or to avoid jockeying over which name comes first, call it something else. Twitter has already solved the problem: call it “Crubio.”

The problem is that Rubio and Cruz face seemingly opposite incentives based on competing ambitions for 2016. Rubio is preparing for a presidential run in the 2016 general election by setting himself up as the sponsor of a long-sought-after immigration breakthrough. Cruz is preparing for the 2016 Republican primaries by setting himself up as the staunch conservative who shot down a “squishy” immigration compromise.

So what could bring these two men together? Mutually assured destruction.

If Rubio wins, he gets his talking point for the general election, but he loses too much of the conservative base and becomes known as just another liberal Republican, “McCain’s mini-me,” as some are already calling him. We know from the last two elections how that turns out.

If Cruz wins, he establishes his rock-ribbed conservative bona fides for the primaries—but he hands the immigration issue over to the Democrats and undercuts whatever advantage he might have with Hispanic voters in the general election.

As they prepare to kill Rubio’s immigration bill, conservatives have been talking themselves into minimizing the importance of the Hispanic vote. Byron York, for example, cites statistics from the 2012 election showing that even if Mitt Romney had dominated the Hispanic vote he would have lost, largely because Hispanic voters tend to be concentrated in deep “blue” states that are already overwhelmingly Democratic.

But York’s statistics reinforce my point about the need for a Rubio-Cruz compromise. These numbers should remind Marco Rubio that Republicans can’t win without motivating the conservative base and bringing back the blue-collar whites who stayed home rather than vote for McCain or Romney. At the same time, Ted Cruz and his supporters should keep in mind that the goal isn’t just to squeak by with 50 percent plus 1, which is what the winner has pretty much done in every election of the past quarter century. That’s how long it’s been since we had a decisive, Reagan-style landslide, and it would be very good for the country to have one again. If he wants a real mandate to govern, he must be able to appeal to all demographic groups and not just motivate his own base. The current state of President Obama’s agenda ought to serve as a warning about where that gets you.

Both Rubio and Cruz have risen to prominence by being articulate talkers. But the real test of leadership isn’t whether they can score short-term political points. The test is whether they can rise above those battles and actually do something important.

Marco Rubio needs to realize he’s been negotiating with the wrong people. What has he been doing with the “Gang of Eight”? Forging a consensus between Chuck Schumer and John McCain? I wouldn’t think that took much work. He needs to recognize that the really important work is putting together a deal that can carry the Senate’s conservatives and House Republicans. If he can’t do that, immigration reform just isn’t going to pass, and the issue is going to keep on festering for another four years.

At the same time, Ted Cruz and his supporters need to decide whether their goal is to complain about illegal immigration or to do something about it. Because if we do nothing, illegal immigration is the default setting.

Our current system is to restrict immigration in theory, making legal immigration difficult, expensive, and subject to arbitrary restrictions and nonsensical quotas. But then we pretty much fail to enforce these restrictions, so that immigration is widely tolerated in practice, so long as it is illegal. The result is that there are huge incentives for immigrants to come here in search of what immigrants have always sought on our shores—greater economic opportunity, more freedom, a better life for their kids—but our current system tells them they can have it only if they come illegally. These immigrants are just responding to the incentives we created. Illegal immigration is our current immigration policy. So those who are concerned about illegal immigration should be the first ones clamoring for comprehensive immigration reform.

The basis for a compromise is already there. Senator Rubio has very publicly acknowledged that the current deal needs to be changed. Senator Cruz at least pays lip service to the idea that we need a reform deal. Let’s start from there. But each side needs to show that it can make some real compromises.

Cruz should accept a “path to citizenship,” because without that the bill can be dismissed by Democrats as meaningless. But he can and should get a path to citizenship that is longer and more arduous, mitigating any sense that this deal goes easy on illegal immigrants or provides an electoral bonanza for Democrats (which it doesn’t, anyway). Cruz should also accept reforms that ease the way for legal immigration or guest worker visas for those who want to come here to work. A big part of the reason current restrictions are not effectively enforced is because they are unenforceable. By imposing too many restriction on legal immigration, they are swimming against too strong a current, against too many natural incentives. This is something conservatives understand very well when they deal with other economic issues, like the individual mandate in ObamaCare. They understand that people react to incentives and that you can’t swim against the tide of human nature. They have to recognize that the same thing applies to immigration. A system that currently sets the same immigration quota for Belgium as for Mexico is not recognizing reality, and reality is not the part of that equation that is going to give way.

For his part, Rubio will have to take enforcement a lot more seriously. An “enforcement trigger,” in which illegal immigrants can pursue legal status only after the government improves border security, is the heart of the immigration compromise. But the bill cannot leave the job of evaluating enforcement unilaterally to the executive, because we have long experience with what that means: it means the government certifying to itself that everything is hunky-dory, regardless of actual results. That’s why the enforcement trigger has zero credibility with conservatives.

Then there are a string of other issues, like the welfare costs that come from legalizing immigrants who are not self-supporting. There is a lot to iron out. But if either side throws up its hands and says the negotiations are just to difficult—well, then we’re entitled to ask senators Rubio and Cruz how they would be better at governing than the current president, who also seems to have a lot of trouble finding common ground with his opposition.

I yield to no one in my advocacy of small government, but I would be considered a “liberal” on immigration and thus I am much more inclined to Rubio’s side. My preferred answer to illegal immigration is to allow a lot more legal immigration. But I would be willing to accept a lot of hard compromises with the anti-immigration conservatives, if that means getting a deal that improves the current awful system.

Similarly, Marco Rubio has to recognize that an immigration deal that is less generous than he would like but which can pass the Senate and the House is far better than an immigration deal that makes him look benevolent and compassionate but fails. Like I said, Rubio has been negotiating with the wrong people. He doesn’t need to get Chuck Schumer on board. He needs to get Senate and House conservatives on board, which means he need the support of someone who can bring along grassroots conservatives, which is Cruz.

I think that if Rubio and Cruz were to strike a deal, they could dictate their terms to everybody else. Republicans need to realize that the situation has changed since the inauguration. After President Obama invested so much political capital on a quixotic campaign for gun control, he is on the ropes and needs to get some major part of his agenda passed. So he needs this win just as badly as Republicans do.

A deal that is endorsed by both Rubio and Cruz—with the two men agreeing to take equal credit and fight for it equally—could get unanimous Republican support in the Senate and bring along a Republican majority in the House. That would put President Obama and Harry Reid in the position of having to block the bill and scuttle the last remaining item in the president’s agenda. So Republicans have the opportunity to be the ones who finally deliver immigration reform—and put Democrats in the position of standing in the way.

No, I don’t imagine that Republicans will get all that much political credit for passing an immigration bill, just as they didn’t get credit for passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, despite voting for it in higher numbers than Democrats. But at least they can keep Democrats from being the sole champions of Hispanic voters on this issue, and if the deal passes they can remove the immigration issue from the debate, so that Republicans can woo Hispanic voters on other issues where they have a greater advantage.

And who knows? If Rubio and Cruz can sit down and make a deal on this issue, if they can work together, maybe their alliance would have a longer life. If Republicans really want to break the Democratic death grip on the Hispanic vote, why not run a “Crubio” ticket in 2016?

However that turns out, the issue goes beyond these two men. They represent two wings of the party that need to learn how to get along. Despite getting into office as a Tea Party upstart, Rubio has taken a more establishment route, showing that he can compromise and make a deal. Cruz has adopted the role of the uncompromising firebrand. But now each side needs to show it can be serious and not just focus on grandstanding. Marco Rubio needs to show that he is not so eager to establish himself as a deal-maker that he makes deals the easy way, by saying “me too” to Democrats. Ted Cruz needs to show that he’s not the kind of grandstanding politician who is less interested in solving problems than he is in playing a game of more-principled-than-thou.

As a supporter of the Tea Party movement, I understand very well that its goal is all about moving the Republican Party to the right and giving it a backbone. But as it is, the rival approaches and ambitions represented by Rubio and Cruz are opening up wedge issues within the Republican Party, so that folks on the right are fighting a battle amongst ourselves while giving up a big issue to the Democrats. That is just what the Democrats want us to do, and it is exactly where we are right now on the immigration issue.

A couple of up-and-coming young politicians who want to demonstrate that they can be real leaders of their party would recognize this problem, and they would both be eager to iron out a deal to avoid it. So Senator Rubio and Senator Cruz, how about it?

This is your test, and if you can rise to the occasion, you will both have earned a spot on the 2016 ticket. You can jockey with each other later about whose name goes on the top.


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One Response to Rubio-Cruz in 2013!

  1. Robert June 22, 2013 at 10:17 PM #

    The GOP can continue grand standing the democrats can continue moving the country leftward.