The obvious problem for Republicans watching Donald Trump with dismay is that the New York developer is dominating in practically every poll. The less obvious problem is his influence over the Republican conversation – and what happens when Trump’s rivals try to keep up.
The GOP frontrunner, for example, took a fairly bold line on birthright citizenship: just because someone is born on American soil, Trump argued, doesn’t make them an American citizen, 14th Amendment be damned. A new litmus test was born – soon, every Republican was pressed on the same issue.
Some struggled more than others. Just ask Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), who offered three very different answers over the course of six days.
Also note what happened when Fox News’ Megyn Kelly asked Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to weigh in this week. Politico reported:
“What would President Cruz do? Do American citizen children of two illegal immigrants, who are born here, the children, get deported under a President Cruz?” Kelly asked. Donald Trump, she said, “has answered that question explicitly.”“Megyn, I get that that’s the question you want to ask,” Cruz said. “That’s also the question every mainstream media liberal journalist wants to ask.”
After some dodges, the host asked, “Why is it so hard? Why don’t you just say yes or no?”
Rather than answering, the far-right senator retreated to the usual rhetoric: officials “can have a conversation” about this after “we’ve secured the border.”
This isn’t nearly as good an answer as Cruz thinks it is.
As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent noted yesterday, “Kelly is absolutely right to note, in the context of the birthright citizenship debate, that Trump has answered questions ‘explicitly,’ while Cruz won’t. This illustrates, once again, that Trump’s immigration plan, if you can call it that, has had the effect of making GOP evasions on the overall immigration issue much harder to sustain.
I agree, though I’d add just one thing. Last week, Cruz appeared on Michael Medved’s conservative talk-radio show and the Republican candidate told the host, “We should end granting automatic birthright citizenship to the children of those who are here illegally.” Cruz even elaborated on his approach, talking about pursuing a constitutional amendment.
Ordinarily, when politicians vacillate, they move in a predictable direction: they dodge questions, avoid specific answers, and then eventually take a controversial position. Cruz, like Walker a few days ago, is doing the exact opposite – both Republican candidates announced their opposition to birthright citizenship and then decided to retreat to ambiguity on the issue.
It’s actually the worst of both worlds. Cruz already adopted a radical posture, but when pressed on Fox News, he backed off, refusing to answer a question that Trump wasn’t afraid of, despite being wrong.
Bill Clinton’s famous formulation about “strong and wrong” topping “weak and right” comes to mind.