Paul Begala: Driving Force Behind the GOP’s Immigration Reform

Rubio is challenging his party's orthodoxy. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

The most troubling deficit the Republican Party has is not technological or even demographic; it is a deficit of new ideas. Thus, it is never too early to begin the Ideas Primary, and Marco Rubio has bolted from the gate to an early lead.

The telegenic, young Cuban-American senator from Florida has been a driving force behind the GOP’s newfound (or, more accurate, renewed) commitment to comprehensive immigration reform. It may now seem hard to believe, but once upon a time Republicans supported allowing those who lacked proper papers to become citizens. President Reagan legalized the status of millions of undocumented workers. A generation later, John McCain teamed up with liberal icon Ted Kennedy to cosponsor an updated version of Reagan’s approach. Their bill, backed by President George W. Bush, included severe penalties for those who have committed the relatively minor offense of illegally crossing the border, then created a path to citizenship for those who paid their debt to society. The right wing falsely branded this approach as amnesty, which it most certainly is not. Amnesty means no punishment, kind of like what Dick Cheney got for accidentally shooting his hunting companion in the face. The McCain-Kennedy-Bush proposal was punishment, not amnesty. Nevertheless, the A word stuck and immigration reform became toxic on the right.

It seems that losing the votes of nearly three out of four Latinos focuses the mind. That math and Senator Rubio’s imprimatur make it likely that some form of comprehensive immigration reform will pass.

Meanwhile, the supposed fountainhead of ideas on the right, Paul Ryan, seems to have run dry. There is not much Ryan is calling for today that Calvin Coolidge didn’t advocate almost a century ago. Ryan gave a major address to the National Review Institute recently in which he called for “strengthening” Medicare and Social Security, but didn’t say how. He went on to say, “We’ll say to the country: ‘Here’s our plan for the economy. Here’s our plan for the budget ... for health care ... for energy ... for defense.’” Those aren’t ideas, Congressman. They’re promises to present plans that contain ideas.

Instead of ideas, Ryan offered a catchphrase (Paul Ryan is all about the catchphrase): “prudence.” “The prudent man,” he said, “is like a captain at sea. He does not curse the wind. He uses it—to get to his destination.” Set aside the weird, archaic, sexist language. Focus instead on how vapid that thought is. One wonders if, in his next speech, Ryan will declare that he believes the children are our future; that we must teach them well and let them lead the way.

To say this makes me a heretic, I realize, for Ryan is the subject of political coverage more properly placed in Tiger Beat magazine. You’re not allowed at the grownups’ table unless you stroke your chin and say that Paul Ryan is an ideas man. Well, I’ll sit with the kids and state the truth: the guy’s got nothing on Rubio.

For Rubio’s real competition, you need to check out America’s statehouses. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio, Rick Snyder of Michigan, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and other Republican governors are writing their ideas into law. Let me hasten to add I don’t personally agree with their ideas, but that’s not the point. They are at least coming up with new ideas. Jindal has gone so far as to call his own party “the stupid party.” (Pretty ironic coming from a Rhodes scholar with an Ivy League biology degree who signed a law allowing the teaching of creationism.)

Yet I prefer Rubio to the governors because Rubio is challenging his party’s orthodoxy. It doesn’t take a lot of guts for a Republican governor to bash public-employee unions; challenging the nativists on immigration does. And Rubio seems to be winning. Already such public intellectuals as Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly have praised Rubio’s immigration proposal—even though it is pretty much what they were calling amnesty not long ago.

Helping one’s party overcome a critical weakness gives any potential presidential contender a leg up in the Ideas Primary. President Clinton won the battle of ideas in much the same way, moderating and modernizing his party’s positions on welfare and crime. It’s too soon to tell if Rubio is the GOP’s Clinton, but he’s off to a good start.