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The Rubio-Cruz Clash Has Donald Trump Laughing All the Way to the Bank

Alex Wong/Getty Images

“Amnesty” was supposed to be an easy issue for Ted Cruz in the Republican primary, but Donald Trump and Marco Rubio have mucked it all up for him. Immigration policy is extremely complex, but the failed bipartisan effort in 2013 to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill created a symbolic fault line dividing Republicans who support eventual citizenship for unauthorized immigrants from those who don’t. For GOP primary purposes, Rubio falls on the wrong side of that line, Cruz does not. Rubio led the fight for that bill, Cruz led the fight to kill it.

But for reasons I examined at some length here, Cruz set a trap for himself. In trying to shatter the immigration reform coalition back then, he introduced legislation that would’ve stripped the citizenship guarantee from the larger bill. Immigrants would’ve ended up with legal status, but never citizenship. To moot Cruz’s advantage on the issue Rubio is now arguing, with some success, that these positions are practically indistinguishable.

A few things are going on here:

1. Many political professionals (operatives, reporters, commentators) who understand legislative politics extremely well are playing dumb at Rubio’s behest. They know Cruz opposed the 2013 bill, and led the fight to kill it, but are sidelining their own procedural expertise because Rubio has a good opposition research team, or because it makes good television, or for some other reason.

2. Cruz is trying to furnish his reputation as both a pristine conservative and a guy who doesn’t play slippery Washington games simultaneously, when it’s clear he played a slippery Washington game in service of killing amnesty. He can’t have it both ways.

3. Normally Cruz could blow all of this off by returning to the fault line. You supported the Rubio-Schumer-Obama amnesty bill and I tried to kill it. But Trump spoils that dichotomy. To the extent that there’s any grey area here at all, anti-immigration voters don’t have to choose between Rubio and Cruz. They can defect to Trump, whose mass deportation agenda is crystal clear.

4. Cruz has tried to hide the ball with respect to how we should address the undocumented population. He opposes citizenship. But does he support legalization? Does he support “attrition through enforcement” which is a lawyerly way of saying self-deportation? Does he support mass deportation? It’s much less than clear. And in a way there’s no good answer. Legalization blurs the contrast between him and Rubio; mass deportation is both extremely alienating and also makes Cruz look beholden to Trump rather than like his own man; and the goldilocks position was a total disaster in 2012 and forever associated with its unloved progenitor, Mitt Romney.

It’s simultaneously true, though, that when Rubio claims he and Cruz have similar positions on immigration, he’s lying. If your role in the media is to help voters sort out the question of who’s more anti-amnesty, and you shrug, or otherwise refuse to say outright that the correct answer is Cruz, you’re failing on the job.

I think most GOP voters inclined to support Cruz will accept the pro-reform/anti-reform distinction, and forgive him for playing parliamentary games in service of killing full amnesty. They’re certainly not going to race into Rubio’s arms. But until Cruz takes a position on the undocumented, it enhances Trump’s appeal. And in that regard the establishment Republicans cooperating with Rubio here, who maybe think they’re helping Rubio by hurting Cruz, are playing a very dangerous game.