Navigating cultural issues like same-sex marriage and immigration has proved tricky for Republicans.
The country has grown rapidly more accepting of gay and lesbian marriage and relationships. And despite a shrinking base of white support and a fast-growing Latino population, Republicans have struggled to adjust.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida on Monday — hours before announcing his run for president — showed how he will try to chart a path through these choppy waters. He drew a fine line on gay rights when asked about his comments on the Indiana law allowing businesses to express their "religious freedom." And despite being one of the shepherds of comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate, he blamed his backing away from the measure on President Obama.
"I don't believe it's right for a florist to say, I'm not going to provide you flowers because you're gay," Rubio said in an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep.
And yet, he still suggested there are proper grounds for a florist to refuse to serve a gay wedding.
"I think there's a difference between not providing services to a person because of their identity, who they are or who they love, and saying, I'm not going to participate in an event, a same-sex wedding, because that violates my religious beliefs. There's a distinction between those two things."
Rubio is trying to create a distinction, he said, between "people" and "events."
"It's immoral and wrong to say, I'm not going to allow someone who's gay or lesbian to use my restaurant, stay in my hotel, or provide photography service to them because they're gay," Rubio continued. "The difference here is, we're not talking about discriminating against a person because of who they are; we're talking about someone who's saying — what I'm talking about, anyway, is someone who's saying, 'I just don't want to participate as a vendor for an event, a specific event that violates the tenets of my faith.'"
Inskeep pressed the point for clarification: "What if two gay people get married and then they go that night to a hotel. Can the hotelkeeper refuse service to them?"
Rubio responded that a hotel, in that instance, could not.
"That's not part of an event," Rubio said. "Again, I mean, that's, there's a difference between saying, we're not going to allow you to stay in our hotel, common lodging establishment where people have a right to shelter, food, medical care, and saying we're not going to, what we're not going to do is provide services to an event, to an actual event, which is the wedding itself. And I think that's the distinction point that people have been pointing to, and, because mainstream Christianity teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman. People feel very strongly about that."
On immigration, Rubio, who speaks Spanish and is the son of Cuban immigrants, was one of the original Gang of Eight members of the Senate who crafted the bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill. It passed the Senate, would have tightened border security and provided a path to citizenship for the 11 million to 12 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally.
Despite its overwhelming support in the Senate, it was unable to pass the more conservative House. Rubio has since backed away from support of a comprehensive bill. He blames the bill's failure on President Obama for, as he sees it, not enforcing immigration laws. Rubio cites the president's use of executive action as evidence. Obama and his supporters argue the president took unilateral action because of stalls in Congress.
Here, again, Rubio tries to draw a fine distinction, saying immigration remains "an issue we need to address," but it won't be done as long as Obama is president or in a comprehensive way.
"I still think we need to do immigration reform," Rubio told Inskeep. "I just don't think you can do it in a comprehensive, massive piece of legislation, given the lack of trust that there is today in the federal government. I honestly believe that the key to moving forward on immigration is to first and foremost prove to the American people that we are going to bring future illegal immigration under control — that if we legalize 12 million people, they won't be replaced by 12 million more who are here illegally."
Polls suggest as many as a third or more of Latinos are reachable for Republicans. A sizable portion consider themselves conservative, but they prefer Democrats, in large measure, because of the immigration issue. And that won't be something they can overcome by 2016 given the party's opposition to passing an immigration bill with a path to citizenship included while President Obama is in office.
But Rubio's not ceding any ground rhetorically on the issue. He took an unprompted swipe at Hillary Clinton, the Democratic favorite, who announced her candidacy Sunday.
"I've done more immigration than Hillary Clinton ever did," Rubio charged. "I mean, I helped pass an immigration bill in a Senate dominated by Democrats. And that's more than she's ever done. She's given speeches on it, but she's never done anything on it."
The question for Rubio is whether he can sell that message to a GOP primary electorate.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The other day, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio climbed on a plane. The guy in the next seat was former Gov. Jeb Bush, who, like Rubio, was from Florida and who, like Rubio, was close to declaring a run for president.
Did you guys talk about the presidential campaign at all?
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: Not in great detail. Jeb and I are friends. We'll always be friends. And it was great to see him and spend quality time just talking about good times and everything going on and everything in between.
INSKEEP: You didn't talk politics very much at all?
RUBIO: Sure, I mean, we had observations about when - we joked with a lot of the passengers who saw us sitting next each other, and we took some pictures with people when we told them - we warned them how historic a picture like that may be one day. And - but, you know, we talked about the Masters. We talked about the paleo diet. We talked about the Miami Dolphins.
INSKEEP: The lighthearted attitude belies the fierce competition ahead. Bush has a lot more money. And there are so many other Republican contenders, Rubio might run into more of them on planes. Whoever wins the nomination will then face the problem of fighting a general election. Elsewhere in today's program, we hear some of Sen. Rubio's views on economic opportunity and foreign policy. Right now we discuss some especially tricky issues for Republicans. One is gay marriage. Most Republicans oppose it. Most voters in a general election favor it.
In recent weeks, the state of Indiana passed a religious freedom law, which was interpreted by many as discrimination, by others as protection for people who don't want to take part in gay marriage. You defended the law and spoke about the hypothetical example of a florist who was asked to participate in a gay marriage and wanted to refuse. You said that person should have the right to follow their religious beliefs. Indiana, though, has since changed the law. Do you still support that concept?
RUBIO: Well, to be fair, I haven't read the change in detail to give you an opinion on it specifically, but I'll tell you where I stand. I don't believe you can discriminate against people, so I don't believe it's right for a florist to say I'm not going to provide you flowers because you're gay. I think there's a difference between not providing services to a person because of their identity - who they are or who they love - and saying I'm not going to participate in an event, a same-sex wedding, because that violates my religious beliefs. There's a distinction between those two things.
So certainly, you can't - it's immoral and wrong to say I'm not going to allow someone who's gay or lesbian to use my restaurant, stay in my hotel or provide photography service to them because they're gay. The difference here is we're not talking about discriminating against a person because of who they are, we're talking about someone who's saying I just don't want to participate as a vendor for an event - a specific event - that violates the tenets of my faith.
INSKEEP: What if two gay people get married and then they go that night to a hotel? Can the hotelkeeper refuse service to them?
RUBIO: That's not part of an event. And I think that's the distinction point that people have been pointing to and - because mainstream Christianity teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman. People feel very strongly about that. And to ask someone to individually provide services to something of that nature, I think, violates their religious liberty.
INSKEEP: There's a big question lurking here, which is that most Americans, according to surveys, now support gay marriage. A large minority of Americans still oppose gay marriage. The question is - that people seem to be wrestling with is - what ground do opponents of gay marriage have left to stand on? What ground should they have to stand on?
RUBIO: Well, first of all, if the majority of Americans support gay marriage, then you'll see it reflected in changes in state law, which has always regulated marriage. Separate from that, there's a constitutional protection of religious liberty that allows people to live by the tenets of their faith, both in their public and in private life. That doesn't mean that you're allowed to go in and disrupt a gay wedding.
But by the same token, it doesn't mean that someone's allowed to come to you and force you to be a participant in a ceremony that violates the tenets of your faith. And to be honest, in the real word, 99.9 percent of time, a same-sex couple doesn't want a florist or a photographer at their wedding that doesn't agree with the choice that they've made.
INSKEEP: When we spoke last year, we talked about immigration, an issue on which you worked for a time on an immigration reform bill. You said first, the reason to do that is not political, it's substantive, but second, that there would be a political effect; that if the Republican Party deals with immigration, it would then have an opportunity to talk with Latino voters about other issues - and, of course, this is a voter group where Republicans have done very poorly in recent elections. Immigration hasn't been dealt with. What are the likely consequences for the Republican Party in 2016?
RUBIO: From my perspective, I continue to believe it's an issue we need to address. The only point I've made is that I think the lessons of the last couple years, for me, is that we're not going to be able to deal with it in one big piece of legislation.
INSKEEP: The bill Rubio backed in 2013 included an eventual chance at citizenship for people here illegally. Facing fierce criticism from inside his party, he was seen by some as backing away. The Senate bill failed in the House. Rubio says he still supports smaller measures, and he hopes voters will understand that he tried.
How do you keep from getting hammered on that in a general election where the Hispanic vote may be very important?
RUBIO: Well, I don't know about the others, but I've done more on immigration than Hillary Clinton ever did. I mean, I helped pass an immigration bill out of a - in a Senate dominated by Democrats. And that's more than she's ever done. She's given speeches on it, but she's never done anything on it. So I have a record of trying to do something on it. It didn't work because at the end of the day, we did not sufficiently address the issue of illegal immigration. And I warned about that throughout that process as well that I didn't think we were doing enough to give the bill a chance of moving forward in the House.
INSKEEP: There's a big question here also because the Republican Party, as many people have noted, faces a demographic challenge that gets a little worse with every election cycle - growing groups in society, such as Latinos and others, are voting increasingly Democratic, and Republican voter groups, particularly older, white voters, are getting smaller. What's the Republican Party need to do about that?
RUBIO: Well, at the end, I don't think people go to the ballot box and say, I'm a Latino, therefore, I'm voting Democrat. I think they bring with them their hopes and fears about the future, and they vote for whoever they think best understands it. And the challenge the Republican Party has had is - unfairly but it's the reality - they've been portrayed as a party that doesn't care about people who are trying to make it. A disproportionate number of people who are trying to make it, who are working-class, who are out there working for a living at $18 an hour, $15 an hour, happen to also be people from minority communities. And if you think someone doesn't care or understand people like you, no matter what your policies are, it's going to be difficult to get them to listen to you, much less vote for you.
And so I hope the Republican Party can become the champion of the working class 'cause I think our policy proposals of limited government and free enterprise are better for the people who are trying to make it than big government is. The fact is that big government helps the people who have made it. If you can afford to hire an army of lawyers and lobbyists and others to help you navigate and sometimes influence the law, you'll benefit. And so that's why you see big banks, big companies keep winning, and everybody else is stuck and being left behind.
INSKEEP: Sen. Rubio, thanks very much.
RUBIO: Thank you.
INSKEEP: Marco Rubio spoke with us in Miami on the day he announced his run for president. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.