The late senator and presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy once remarked that it is dangerous for a national candidate to say things that people might remember. If that admonition holds true, the political goose of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., might be cooked.
In backing off from his support of the Senate-passed comprehensive immigration reform that he helped author, Rubio is joining a long and illustrious line of American politicians with presidential ambitions who chose retreat in the face of defeat. Some have suffered from walking back from long-held positions; others have recovered impressively.
Among those who reversed field and lived to regret it was John Kerry with his "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it" statement, referring to his positions on Iraq War funding. That statement might have made sense to any member of Congress familiar with its arcane legislative process, but to ordinary mortals it sounded like waffling.
Politicians who are forced by circumstance to abandon long-established positions find it almost impossible to extricate themselves gracefully. Mitt Romney, who counted as one of his signal accomplishments as governor of Massachusetts a state health insurance law, was whipsawed during the 2012 campaign over whether to embrace the accomplishment or disown it.
In the course of the Republican primary campaign, Romney faced suspicion from members of the party's right wing that he was really a moderate sailing under false conservative colors. Accordingly, he went to great pains to distinguish "Romneycare" from "Obamacare."
"I will repeal Obamacare and replace it with real health care reform," Romney declared during a rally in Toledo, Ohio. Romney did not reckon with the fact that a program sponsored by a state government was unlikely to be any more palatable to conservatives than one run by the federal government.
Simultaneously, Romney was having to cope with the fallout from a video of him taken surreptitiously at a campaign function in which he disparaged what he characterized as the 47% of Americans dependent on government assistance. This forced Romney to cite the Massachusetts law as an example of his compassion for the less-fortunate.
This dilemma was summed up by Boston Globereporter Matt Viser: "The dichotomy of his statements further illustrated the tightrope Romney has had to walk in pledging to repeal President Obama's federal law, while simultaneously trying to take credit for the state-level plan he signed into law in Massachusetts."
There are statements from which there is no walking back. These are assertions made that are so categorical, repeated so often and under so many different circumstances that any retreat would be seen as hypocritical or even dishonest. That is the situation in which Obama has found himself with his 2009 assertion that "if you like your health care plan, you'll be able to keep your health care plan, period. No one will take it away, no matter what." This week, thousands of Americans receiving cancellation notices because their insurance does not measure up to the standards in the Affordable Care Act have good reason to doubt the president's sincerity.
Rubio's participation in the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" that crafted the immigration bill was seen as essential by the other participants, although some of the Democrats questioned whether his need to be in good standing with party conservatives might make him unwilling to support a bill that contained a path to citizenship for the 11.7 million undocumented immigrants -- a provision toxic to the Tea Party.
Rubio might have been naive in thinking that his contribution to the immigration reform bill would commend him to all Republicans. Nor could he have foreseen that he would be forced to disown the comprehensiveness in favor of the piecemeal approach favored by the House GOP.
But in his honest effort to help shape what he considered good public policy, he ran afoul of an unforgiving political climate that penalizes bipartisanship and rewards staunch party loyalty.
Rubio can only hope that yielding to realization that his approach would fail in the House will be seen not the action of a flip-flopper but of any person faced with changed circumstances who concludes that discretion is the better part of valor.
Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.
J. Scott Applewhite, AP
Copyright 2013 USA TODAY
Original headline: Will Rubio pay for immigration retreat? Column
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