Senior Rubio advisor on immigration: Let's face it, Ted Cruz is a "shameless phony"

Gonna pass along to you a little thought I shared with Twitter last night.

Not quite 24 hours later, here we are:

Merrill is a former Romney guy who’s currently leading Rubio’s campaign in New Hampshire, or what passes for a Rubio campaign in New Hampshire. Rubio himself was more politic in commenting on this today but he repeated the substance of the charge:

“He’s going to have a hard time because he’s not told the truth about his position in the past on legalization,” Rubio (Fla.) told reporters after a town hall here. “And up until the debate, he had never said what he said.”

Cruz (Tex.) said at the debate that he has never supported legalization for undocumented immigrants and, “I do not intend to support legalization,” drawing a distinction with Rubio, who supports a path to citizenship.

Rubio argued Cruz is trying to leave himself some “wiggle room” by using the word “intend.”

Watch below for Cruz’s de facto rebuttal, a five-minute take on his 2013 legalization amendment that he gave today in Las Vegas when reporters pressed him on it. Most of the ins and outs of this debate should be familiar to you by now but let me point out two things. One: The likely winner of a Rubio/Cruz knife fight is Trump, especially since it’s creating space for him to attack Cruz as soft on legalizing illegals if and when he decides to. That’s Trump’s best play against Cruz if they go to war, as even Cruz fans like Rush Limbaugh will think twice before attacking Trump for being too opposed to legalization. And Cruz realizes that, I’m sure, but there’s really no way for him to disengage. Cruz has to hit Rubio on the Gang of Eight since it’s Rubio’s biggest political liability. And Rubio has to reply by noting that Cruz himself has flirted with legalization, as that’ll help blow up the idea of immigration as a conservative purity test. Which brings us to point two: It’s strange that Cruz persists in trying to explain away his 2013 amendment instead of focusing on Rubio’s much greater sin in pushing the Gang of Eight bill to begin with. He talks about both here, but he’s been mostly on defense for nearly 48 hours now over his own views of legalization. He’s not going to “win” the debate over this amendment for the same reason that Rubio’s not really going to “win” it either — it’s too esoteric for anyone apart from political junkies to care about it. I watched the clip below trying to imagine how a low-information voter would process what Cruz is saying and all I could come up with was “What the hell are they talking about?” Why Cruz doesn’t realize that, I don’t know. Maybe it’s a pure pride thing. Rubio’s basically daring the champion debater to talk his way out of this, so now Cruz is intent.

This bit, however, is an excellent point by Cruz and something he and his team should hammer:

“Now, Marco Rubio is a friend of mine, he’s a wonderful communicator, he’s a charming individual, he’s very well-liked in Washington. Marco Rubio campaigned telling the people of Florida if you elect me, I will lead the fight against amnesty,” Cruz said, adding that he told voters the same thing during his 2012 Senate campaign. “But come 2013, we made very, very different decisions.”

Indeed they did. The second clip below, from Rubio’s 2010 Senate campaign, is already famous among border hawks but Team Cruz could and should raise its profile. Rubio’s attack on Cruz over legalization is stinging a little (emphasis on “a little”) not because there’s something huge at stake in what Cruz thought in 2013 but because it challenges his image as the unerring conservative who’ll never veer from right-wing orthodoxy. That’s great — except Rubio ran as a very orthodox conservative himself in 2010, dismissing legislation that involves an “earned path to citizenship” as amnesty, and then turned right around once he was elected and pushed an earned-citizenship monstrosity himself. That’s what Cruz should be zeroed in on. It’s not just that Rubio supported a bad bill, it’s that he lied to the conservatives who elected him in Florida. Even if you’re okay with the Gang of Eight bill on the merits, how could you possibly trust him to keep the promises to the right that he’s been making in this primary campaign? What on earth is Cruz doing letting Rubio paint him as the shifty one in the immigration debate? Good lord, man. Get a hold of yourself.

If you’re hung up on what Cruz did and didn’t believe in 2013, though, I’ll leave you with two observations. First, one defense that’s popular with Cruz fans today is that Cruz’s legalization amendment must have been a poison pill because border hawks Jeff Sessions and Mike Lee both supported it. Jeff Sessions is most definitely not pro-legalization so how could Cruz be? Well, Sessions and Lee come from two of the reddest states in the country and neither one has presidential ambitions. They can afford to take the most conservative position on nearly every bill they see, and certainly nearly every immigration bill they see, knowing that they only have to win a conservative primary to keep their seats. Cruz, though, already (likely) had his eye on running for president in 2013 and knew that he’d have to face a national electorate with many centrist voters if everything worked out for him in the 2016 presidential race. That’s why I think his amendment was double-edged, something he could claim was a poison pill in the primaries to please conservatives and then will claim was offered in earnest in the general election to please swing voters.

Two: Matt Sheffield makes a good point here. The Texas Tribune ran a story on Cruz and immigration in 2013, the same year as the Gang of Eight bill, that contained quotes like this:

“I have said many times that I want to see common-sense immigration reform pass,” he said. “I think most Americans want to see the problem fixed.”…

“The amendment that I introduced removed the path to citizenship, but it did not change the underlying work permit from the Gang of Eight,” he said during a recent visit to El Paso. Cruz also noted that he had not called for deportation or, as Mitt Romney famously advocated, self-deportation.

Cruz said recent polling indicated that people outside Washington support some reform, including legal status without citizenship. He said he was against naturalization because it rewarded lawbreakers and was unfair to legal immigrants. It also perpetuates illegal crossings, he added…

Cruz has said the stalemate is denying help to farmers and ranchers who “have a real need for labor resources.”

Cruz did tell the Tribune that his legalization amendment was a poison pill in “intent and effect” with respect to a path to citizenship, but read those quotes again. That sounds like a man who sees the virtue in leglization. And here’s Sheffield’s key point: The Tribune story was published in September 2013. The Gang of Eight bill passed the Senate months earlier, in late June. Cruz’s amendment was already dead and buried at the time. If Cruz’s support for legalization was just a ploy to sweeten his poison pill for Democrats, why was he still talking it up months later after the pill had already been spat out? Hmmm.