Sen. Marco Rubio has an advantage that few Republicans can claim: They want to win the presidency, and they think he's got what it takes to do it. So he's uniquely able to go onto conservative media and calm down the table-bangers. They don't want to make him look bad!
Exhibit A was Mark Levin, for whom every liberal action is a move toward Stalinism. After Rubio went on the show, Levin started talking calmer about reform. Exhibit B — more important — came at 1:07 p.m., when Rubio talked to Rush Limbaugh one day after Limbaugh promised to lead the opposition to the bill. Rubio started by saying he remembered Limbaugh's TV show; the host, duly flattered, cut to the questions.
"When the Democrats want to do something, the media gets behind it, the Democrats, it becomes something that has to be done," said Limbaugh. "Why are we doing this now?"
"Actually, to avoid that problem," said Rubio. "This was going to be an issue. The president was going to push on this. The media was going to push on this." All he was doing was avoiding a 1986-like amnesty disaster. "They granted a blanket amnesty to 3 million people at the time, and they didn't do any enforcement mechanisms."
"The same language is being used today as was used in 1986," Limbaugh said.
Rubio found his out. "Unless these mechanisms for enforcement are in place, I won't support it." He was hinting that he could turn on the bill if it was weakened in negotiations. Given that any bill would need to be strengthened to pass a Republican House, this was a strawman argument, but it worked, and Limbaugh moved on.
"If 70 percent of the Hispanic vote went Republican," said Limbaugh, "do you think any Democrats would be in favor?"
Easy. "I am confident — I really am — that given a fair chance I can convince most Americans, including Hispanic Americans, that limited government is better for them than big government," Rubio said.
But what about that immigrant vote? Immigrants of the past, said Limbaugh, "wanted to be Americans. They wanted to be citizens of the greatest country on Earth." The new immigrants, he feared, wanted handouts, which was why they were natural Democrats. "Are conservatives stuck in the past about misjudging why immigrants are drawn to America today?"
"I haven't done a scholarly study on the make-up of immigrants," punted Rubio. "The folks I interact with, when they get to this country and they open their own business, they see the cost of government first-hand."
After only a few minutes, Limbaugh was letting Rubio off the hook and suggesting that he stood in the way of a lawless president. "He's promised he's not going to do border security first," said Limbaugh. Sort of hard to square with the administration's deportation record, but run with it.
"The president has an important decision to make in about an hour," said Rubio, referring to the speech that his group of senators functionally pre-empted. "I'm not going to be part of a bidding war... if he's gone to Las Vegas to give a speech and trigger a bidding war, then, no, there won't be a solution."
Limbaugh was basically sold. He wondered if Obama wanted to "fulfill his dream of eliminating any viable political opposition in the media" by killing Rubio's bill, a totally contradictory theory to the "he wants more Hispanic voters" theory, and easy for Rubio to dismiss by promising to stay tough.
"What you are doing is admirable and noteworthy," Limbaugh said. "You are recognizing reality. I'm just worried the president is trying to change reality."
That teed up Rubio for some inspiring wordplay about America and freedom and the people he grew up with. "It wasn't all that long ago when your message was what this country was," concluded Limbaugh. "Best to you, and good luck."
Correction, Jan. 29, 2013: This story originally misquoted Rush Limbaugh as saying, “What are you doing is admirable and noteworthy.” Limbaugh said, “What you are doing is admirable and noteworthy.”