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Ted Cruz on defensive as immigration fight engulfs campaign

Two years ago, the Texas senator tried to have it both ways on immigration. Now he's taking heat from the conservative media for it.
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz walks the stage during a commercial break in the midst of the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nev., Dec. 15, 2015. (Photo by Mike Blake/Reuters)
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz walks the stage during a commercial break in the midst of the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nev., Dec. 15, 2015. 

Sen. Ted Cruz is rarely flustered. If anything, his problem is that he can come across as too polished and self-assured. But on Wednesday, he looked as vulnerable as he ever has on Fox News as host Bret Baier methodically confronted him with a long trail of seemingly contradictory statements on immigration reform.

The Texas senator -- and front-runner for the Iowa caucuses -- declared during Tuesday’s debate: "I have never supported legalization, and I do not intend to support legalization.” But, as Baier pointed out, Cruz introduced an amendment to Sen. Marco Rubio’s bipartisan immigration bill in 2013 that would have stripped its citizenship component without removing its path to undocumented immigrants receiving work permits and green cards. In other words: Legalization.

The host played a clip of Cruz in the Senate saying he “want[ed] immigration reform to pass” and that if his colleagues sought reform that “allows those who are here illegally to come in out of the shadows,” they should pass his amendment, in which case “the chances of this bill passing into law would increase dramatically.” He went on to read several similar quotes from the time.

"It sounded like you wanted the bill to pass," Baier said.

"Of course I wanted the bill to pass -- my amendment to pass,” Cruz answered.

"You said the bill," Baier said.

Cruz laid out his explanation more carefully. The amendment, he said, did not show he wanted Rubio's "Gang of Eight" bill to pass, or that he endorsed legalization. Even hardline conservatives like Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama voted for his amendment. It was all a show, in Washington parlance a “poison pill,” to help drag down the legislation by highlighting its citizenship component, which conservatives considered a ripe political target. Cruz has said in the past that the amendment also aimed to call Democrats' bluff: By opposing a path to legalization, Democrats would betray that they only cared about citizenship because it would increase the ranks of Democratic voters. 

“Bret, you’ve been around Washington enough, you know how to defeat bad legislation,” Cruz said.

Cruz was right that absolutely no one involved in immigration reform at the time thought he was seriously considering supporting the Gang of Eight bill. He was an opponent through and through.

But, as Baier recognized, that explanation created its own problems. If Cruz sounded a different note on the bill in every contemporary speech and interview than what he now claims is his actual one, that makes it impossible for voters to properly evaluate him on the issue. Especially given that he had multiple years to clarify his legalization stance in the interim, but rigidly avoided doing so until Tuesday’s debate. 

“Looking back at what you said then and what you’re saying now, which one should people believe?” Baier asked.

In theory, Cruz’s case against Rubio on this topic should be airtight. As Cruz has struggled to remind everyone this week, no reasonable analysis of their records on immigration could conclude they’re similar. Rubio co-authored the bipartisan immigration bill now under fire from conservatives. Cruz denounced it, labeled it “amnesty” after it passed, and then led efforts to further increase deportations. It's ludicrous to lump them together in relative terms.  

"I oppose amnesty," Cruz told reporters on Thursday. "I oppose citizenship. I oppose legalization for illegal aliens. I always have and I always will. And I challenge every other Republican candidate to say the same thing or, if not, then to stop making silly assertions that their record and my record on immigration are the same."

That's Cruz's decisive take now. But Cruz left more wiggle room during the period in which he introduced the amendment in question. Remember that in 2013, it seemed possible that support for immigration reform of some kind might become the party line for the GOP, which knew it needed to do a better job of appealing to Hispanics. If that happened, opposition to legalization might become a liability.

The contradiction is coming back to haunt Cruz in right-leaning media, and giving Rubio a surprising opening to deflect from his own, far more significant, break with conservative “amnesty” opponents. It's left Cruz having to claim he was saying one thing in public, while actually meaning another – something that sounds a lot like the argument Cruz routinely levels against Republican leaders in Congress.

“This is the sort of slimy behavior that we expect from Bill Clinton or Harry Reid, not from the straight-talking, Churchillian foe of all that is unholy about Washington,” National Review columnist Charles W. Cooke wrote in a tough piece on Cruz Wednesday.

Prominent conservatives like TownHall’s Guy Benson and the Washington Examiner’s Byron York also published pieces dissecting Cruz’s position. York included audio from a 2013 interview in which he asked Cruz whether he was on board with legalization and Cruz replied by citing the amendment. Cruz responded similarly to a question on whether he supported legalization during a 2013 appearance at Princeton. 

On Fox News on Wednesday, Megyn Kelly interviewed Rubio, and told him he was “right on that” when it came to Cruz’s legalization stance.

“He has, he did, he is on the record repeatedly back in 2013 supporting legalization for the 11 million,” Kelly said. “Do you think he is taking a harder line now on this issue in order to appeal to the GOP base?”

Kelly wasn't totally accurate there. Cruz never explicitly endorsed legalization (his standard talking point was that it was a “conversation” for after the border was secure) so much as maintain strategic ambiguity on the issue for years. He took a major step to resolving that confusion at Tuesday’s debate when, for the first time, he and his campaign appeared to rule out legalization – putting him in line with Mitt Romney’s 2012 “self-deportation” approach. Despite that shift, Rubio on Thursday accused Cruz of still trying to "leave the option open" of supporting legal status.

Cruz tried to turn the tables on Wednesday by accusing Rubio of obfuscating his position on granting undocumented immigrants earned citizenship.   

“To this day, he supports granting citizenship to 12 million people here illegally,” he told reporters. “Last night was the first time he admitted it, and admitted not only on Spanish-language television but on English-language television.

That wasn’t accurate either, though. Rubio may not like to talk about his support for earned citizenship much these days, but as recently as last month he confirmed to NPR – in English – that it was indeed still his position. He has shifted his stance regarding how it would happen – he now wants border security measures passed first – in a way that makes it hard to tell if anyone will ever actually obtain legal status or citizenship. 

Cruz will have ample ammunition to go after Rubio on immigration in the home stretch. For once, though, the Texas senator looks at least a little rattled by having his conservative credentials questioned. Rubio’s campaign, which has been spraying a fire hose of emails to reporters about Cruz’s immigration record, couldn’t be happier.