One Smart Republican.

Marco Rubio, Florida Republican Senate candidate, darling of Tea Partiers, and New Latino Friend to GOP presidential contenders everywhere, just did a very curious thing. He actually came out against Arizona's new immigration law:

From what I have read in news reports, I do have concerns about this legislation. While I don’t believe Arizona’s policy was based on anything other than trying to get a handle on our broken borders, I think aspects of the law, especially that dealing with 'reasonable suspicion,' are going to put our law enforcement officers in an incredibly difficult position. It could also unreasonably single out people who are here legally, including many American citizens. Throughout American history and throughout this administration we have seen that when government is given an inch it takes a mile.

This makes perfect logical sense. After all, if you oppose big government and worry about "tyranny" (one of the Tea Partiers' favorite words), how can you support a law that gives the state the power to demand that everyone carry papers demonstrating their citizenship, and makes going out without your papers something you can get detained for?

But logic, alas, is seldom on the right's side when it comes to immigration. There is a profound tension running under this issue. On one hand, business conservatives like the idea of a low-wage, non-unionized pool of workers, while small-government conservatives don't (or shouldn't) like laws like this one because of the powers it gives government agents. On the other hand, the nativist impulse is an extremely powerful force running through the right, one that, for those who feel it, can overwhelm any other beliefs they have about the proper role of government.

It's pretty clear how GOP officials have resolved this tension: by going all in on the nativism. John McCain, for instance, whom many people once (mistakenly) thought of as a moderate, endorsed the Arizona law. It should have been no surprise, given that in 2008, in the pressure of the GOP presidential primary, he announced that he would vote against his own comprehensive immigration bill. There's a good chance that in the 2012 primary, we'll see a repeat of the I-hate-illegals-even-more-than-my-opponents debate we saw last time around.

As Michael Cohen pointed out, this is perfectly rational short-term strategy for Republicans like McCain who are facing primary challenges from the right. But the long-term effects on the Republican Party are disastrous. Latinos are the fastest-growing minority group in the country, and every couple of years, the GOP sends them a strong, clear message. You could see a national version of the battle over Prop. 187 in California in 1994, when the state's Republicans rode the anti-immigrant measure to victory that year -- then quickly resigned themselves to near-permanent minority status in the state.

Rubio is no fool. He knows that in Florida, where the discussion around immigration is profoundly different than it is in Arizona, he'll be rewarded, not punished, for coming out against SB 1070 (he's already all but won the Republican primary and now needs to start appealing to a general election electorate). He also knows that lots of big-name Republicans are going to feel the need to show voters that they're not bigots. After all, there are some Latinos they love! Like who? Like Marco Rubio! He can continue to be their New Latino Friend for years to come.

-- Paul Waldman

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