Marco Rubio has had a pretty charmed political life. He rose quickly through the ranks in the Florida legislature, won a Senate seat without too much trouble at the tender age of 39, then suddenly found himself the "Republican savior" a mere two years after arriving in Washington. At a time when the GOP is desperate to appeal to Latinos, he's a young, smart, dynamic Latino who could be their presidential nominee in 2016. What could go wrong?
Immigration reform, that's what. Many elite Republicans feel, and not without reason, that while supporting comprehensive reform might not win them the votes of Latinos, opposing it will pretty much guarantee that those votes will be lost to them. And Rubio almost has no choice but to be one of the leaders, if not the leader, of the party in that effort. He can't be the Great Latino Hope if he isn't. Trouble is, lots and lots of rank-and-file Republicans, particularly the kind who vote in presidential primaries, don't much like reform the way it's shaping up. Sure, under the "Gang of 8" plan in the Senate it'll take 13 years for a current undocumented immigrant to become an American citizen. But for many in the party's base, that's about 113 years too quick. Enter the MarcoPhone. Wait, what? Get a load of this:
Conservative bloggers immediately seized on portions of the bill funding expanded cell phone access along the border as evidence Rubio was supplying free phones to undocumented immigrants. Some commentators connected it to the "Obama phone," a popular meme on the right last year about a program that provides discounts on phone service to the poor. Despite the moniker, it predated the current administration by decades and rose to prominence last year mostly due to a viral video of a female black Obama supporter talking about the program.
Rubio himself was confronted with the claim on Wednesday in an interview with conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham, who quoted from a blog post that read "Move over Obama phone, this is the amnesty phone."
The provision in question doesn't give phones to undocumented immigrants, it gives phones to people who live on the border so they can call the Border Patrol if they see people crossing from Mexico. But as Ed Kilgore says, "I'm having trouble feeling bad for Rubio getting a taste of what it's like to be on the receiving end of a Tea Party delusion." It'll certainly be an interesting test of Rubio's and his team's communication skills to see if they can squash this (they're already trying).
What folks like Ingraham understand is that when you're trying to gin up outrage about a big, complex piece of legislation, the way to do it is to find some component of the bill that is weighted with symbolic value and will hit directly on your target audience's resentments and fears. It doesn't matter how minor the provision is, or how much you need to distort its actual function and intent. All that matters is that it'll get people pissed off.
"Death panels" was the prototypical example. It told people who feared increased government power and control that the Affordable Care Act would literally give heartless Washington bureaucrats the power to decide who lives and dies. It was not just a lie but an absurd lie, an insane lie. But it worked, at least well enough. Gun advocates who wanted to defeat the Manchin-Toomey background check proposal went around saying it included a "national gun registry," despite the fact that the bill prohibited the government from ever making such a registry, because they knew that would play on the most paranoid fears of gun nuts who think that any moment the jackbooted AFT thugs are going to come busting down their door to confiscate their AR-15s. The MarcoPhone can function the same way. What does it tell people in the anti-immigrant portion of the GOP base? That a bunch if illegals aren't just getting amnesty, they're going to be getting freebies, paid for with your tax dollars!
If it isn't nipped in the bud, this could be deadly for Rubio. His Tea Party credentials may be impeccable, but if he starts looking soft on the foreign horde to the south, a lot of Republican primary voters will start getting suspicious of him. It's possible that now that it has been explained to them, people like Ingraham will back off, especially since the guy they're attacking is one of their own. As long as they still consider him one of their own.