The political world is still buzzing over the way Rush Limbaugh seemed to swoon over Marco Rubio yesterday in spite of the fact that he entered the conversation with the Florida senator disagreeing strongly with his position on immigration reform. Rubio has been on a tour of conservative talk radio shows in the last week as he attempts to sell the conservative base, with the stop at Limbaugh’s show the most important. While it’s clear that Rubio didn’t exactly persuade Limbaugh to change sides on the issue, his arguments in favor of the principles put forward by the bipartisan Senate group he joined on immigration clearly impressed the influential host.

Rubio’s ability to cause Limbaugh to moderate his position somewhat illustrates that the battle on the right over immigration isn’t as one-sided as some would have it. But while there’s little doubt that supporters of the bipartisan compromise are going to have their hands full in gaining the backing of the Republican caucuses in both the Senate and the House, the debate is also turning into an important showcase for Rubio’s natural political talent. It may be a little early to start handicapping the 2016 presidential race, but the senator, whose career was launched as a Tea Party insurgent, is strengthening his national stature with his advocacy on immigration in a way that impresses conservatives and makes it harder for the liberal media to demonize him.

The case Rubio is making for the immigration compromise package is persuasive. He is working hard to convince conservatives that the measures in it to secure the border are real and not, as some would claim, merely a fig leaf on an amnesty bill that will repeat the problems of the 1986 legislation that did nothing to solve the problem. Though Limbaugh pointed out that Ronald Reagan ultimately decided that he made a mistake in backing that bill, he could not argue with Rubio’s insistence that the linkage between border security and the path to citizenship for illegals in the statement of principles he signed on to was credible. So, too, was Rubio’s threat to abandon the bill if Democrats or President Obama succeeded in slipping in a poison pill that would essentially neuter the provisions about halting the flow of illegals into the country.

Rubio was especially eloquent when he pointed out to Limbaugh that the talk on the right about illegals coming here for welfare benefits was not the case for most immigrants, who come here for work. When this child of immigrants spoke of knowing about this issue personally rather than reading about it in a book, he was not merely undermining conservative critiques of immigration reform but also dishing liberal stereotypes about the right.

That the senator can speak out for immigrants while simultaneously making traditional free-market opportunity and anti-tax arguments shows that this is a unique political figure that can synthesize the best of Tea Party principles with a frame of reference that is outside the box for the right. That’s why Limbaugh seemed to be telling his listeners than even if they didn’t like the bill, they ought to be cheering for one of its authors.

Any other senator who tried to sell the right on a rational immigration proposal that doesn’t pretend 11 million illegals can be deported might be branded as a weak sister or a RINO–and one should expect that some will try to do that. But Rubio’s Tea Party credentials and his solid record opposing concessions to the administration on spending and taxes makes such attacks fall flat.

If Rush can rhapsodize about Rubio’s advocacy on an issue where his instincts tell him that he should be rallying the right against compromise, that makes obvious his potential to be a major player on the national stage. Some may believe his embrace of immigration reform is a gamble since it exposes him to a backlash from his party’s base. But it is also an opportunity to launch him as a national political star in a way that he has not been before.

It’s too soon to say whether supporters of the bipartisan compromise will succeed in enacting immigration reform this year. But win or lose, Rubio will emerge from it a stronger political figure whose 2016 presidential stock will be on the rise. 

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