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A Tough Pill to Swallow

Ted Cruz’s bizarre effort to reframe his own record on ”legalization.”

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Ted Cruz, right, speaks during an exchange with Marco Rubio, left, as Ben Carson, second from left, and Donald Trump look on during the CNN Republican presidential debate in December.
AP Photo/John Locher

In Tuesday night’s debate Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz had a heated exchange over immigration reform. It started when Dana Bash asked Cruz about Rubio’s comments, last month, that he and Cruz held similar positions on immigration reform.

Cruz rejected the suggestion, saying that while Rubio had led the fight for “amnesty” in 2013, as a member of the Senate’s bipartisan Gang of Eight, he had stood with hardline Republicans like Jeff Sessions, the senator from Alabama, and Steve King, the representative from Iowa. Rubio responded with feigned innocence: “As far as Ted’s record, I’m always puzzled by his attack on this issue. Ted, you support legalizing people who are in this country illegally.”

Rubio was referring to an amendment that Cruz offered to the Gang of Eight’s immigration reform bill in 2013. The bill, which passed the Senate but was never taken up in the House, would have provided a pathway to citizenship for the eleven million or so unauthorized immigrants already in the United States. Cruz’s amendment, which was voted down in the Senate Judiciary Committee, would have provided a pathway to legal status, but not full citizenship. At the time, Cruz argued that he thought that this would improve the bill’s overall chances of passage. At the debate, though, he bristled at Rubio’s account: “Look, I understand Marco wants to raise confusion. It is not accurate what he just said that I supported legalization. Indeed, I led the fight against his legalization and amnesty.”

Since then, the Cruz campaign has doubled down on a manifestly tricky argument: the amendment in question was merely a strategic ploy, designed to expose the cynicism of Democrats, who were, Cruz contends, insisting on citizenship as a way to add millions of new Democrats to the voting rolls. On Wednesday, Sessions agreed with this bizarre and convoluted line of argument: “You can say it was a poison pill, yeah.” And on Thursday, Cruz doubled down on his conflation of “legalization” and “amnesty”: “Let’s have a moment of simple clarity: I oppose amnesty. I oppose citizenship. I oppose legalization.”

Regular readers may remember that I weighed in on Rubio and Cruz’s dispute in November. My conclusion, at that point, was that both Rubio and Cruz are correct, depending on your definition of “amnesty,” which is a word that refers to a concept rather than a specific legal meaning. As Rubio says, he and Cruz–and pretty much everyone else who’s taking a serious approach to the issue—agree, in a big picture sense, that we should extend some form of legal status to the eleven million or so unauthorized immigrants already in the country. To Cruz’s point, however, he and Rubio have a significant and substantive disagreement over whether that should include a path to citizenship, which, for reasons he clearly articulated at the time, would be “amnesty.” The previous post, at the link in the first sentence of this paragraph, lays out my reasoning and evidence, neither of which have changed.

What has changed is Cruz’s interpretation of “amnesty.” In 2013, he used the word to refer to “citizenship.” As of the debate, he’s now using it to mean “legalization.” In other words, Cruz has adopted Rubio’s definition. This is strange, because under that definition, Cruz did support amnesty in 2013.

The argument that he did so solely for strategic reasons—as a “poison pill”—is bizarre. Even if that were true, which I doubt, it would still be the case that Cruz explicitly argued for a path to legal status. To put it differently: Rubio would be right about what Cruz said, even if Sessions is right about why.

Making matters even more strange is that the “poison pill” defense hinges on the public’s willingness to believe that someone as clever as Cruz would come up with such a clumsy ploy. In 2013 he was widely dismissed as a wild-eyed wacko bird. Democrats have long suspected that his expressed desire for compromise was a poison pill; I’ve heard a number of them say so in response to my intermittent observations that Cruz, contra his reputation, has explicitly said that although he opposes a path to citizenship, he supports a path to legal status. I don’t want to get into a philosophical cul-de-sac here, but for Cruz to insist that they were right, two years later, is to give up on arguing that his poison pill exposed their true motives. Maybe he did. Or maybe Senate Democrats noticed that his proposal was labeled with a skull and crossbones and decided not to take the bait.

On balance, I understand that Cruz and Rubio are competing in a Republican primary, but this seems like an unnecessary concession on the Texas senator’s part. Cruz is well-positioned to win the nomination regardless of his youthful experiments with pragmatism. He’s capable of arguing, persuasively, that there’s a meaningful distinction between “legalization” and citizenship. He seems to have convinced Rubio, at least, whose current position is Cruz’s previous one. Since the campaign began, Rubio has declared that his first priority is securing the border, and during the debate, when asked if he still supports a path to citizenship, he offered an alternative: “I personally am open to allowing people to apply for a green card.”

It’s a potentially costly concession, too. In arguing that he was only scheming in 2013, Cruz risks giving people the idea that he’s prone to subterfuge, if not being fundamentally disingenuous. And although we may eventually hear some esoteric lawyerly argument about the precise meaning of “legalization,” I think Cruz is giving up a credential that might have proven useful if he makes it to the general election. Hillary Clinton will say that the 2013 fight for comprehensive immigration reform failed because Republicans refused to negotiate. Any Republican nominee can say, counterfactually, that Democrats were the real obstructionists. Rubio, if he’s the nominee, can go further, if he wants to; he can point to evidence that he tried. By recasting the compromise he proposed as a poison pill, Cruz has given up the chance to do so, if it comes to that. I doubt this week’s revisionism will prove to be a fatal decision. But in a closely contested general election, it may be a hard pill to swallow.

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