McCain clarifies, sort of: I assume Ted Cruz is eligible to be president -- but shouldn't it be looked at?

BuzzFeed is calling this a walkback from what he said yesterday. Is it? A walkback would be “I’m convinced now from my reading of the law that Cruz is eligible” and/or “the campaign shouldn’t be sidetracked by distractions like this.” He’s not saying either of those things. In fact, he’s doubling down on the idea that this should be looked at. All he’s allowing is that Cruz presumably considered his eligibility before he decided to run and felt confident he qualified as “natural-born.”

Is this a walkback?

“This is something constitutional scholars should make a decision on. I assume that he is eligible, that’s my assumption, and I will continue to assume that until it is contradicted,” McCain said. “But it needs to be looked at, as every aspect of anyone who wants to be the president of the United States should be quote ‘looked at,’ and I don’t see anything wrong with that. Should you and I say it shouldn’t be looked at?”

That’s all Trump really wants from his Birther play against Cruz, for people to agree that it should be “looked at.” I haven’t seen a single con law scholar argue that there’s real doubt about Cruz’s constitutional eligibility; if he went to court, he’d win, assuming a court would even agree to hear the challenge. Trump’s point in raising this is to keep a cloud over Cruz’s head and to keep him talking about this instead of the things he really wants to talk about — and McCain is playing right into it.

This is what you say when you want to tamp the issue down rather than keep it going:

Team Cruz may be laughing it off in public but privately they’re concerned:

Yet behind those breezy dismissals, there’s a recognition among Cruz allies that, given Trump’s ability to dominate a news cycle, the issue is a considerable distraction.

“Virtually every news story, TV show coverage, is bringing up the birther issue and Trump’s statements on it, it’s clearly in the mainstream media right now, people are hearing about it, talking about it, and you have to address it,” said Saul Anuzis, the former chairman of the Michigan GOP, who has informally advised the Cruz campaign on some matters but stressed that he was not speaking for the campaign on this issue…

Tommy Vietor, a veteran of the Obama administration who is well-acquainted with the fever swamps of the birther debate, said Trump “can screw up an entire week of your coverage, and in this late phase of the campaign, that’s a huge problem.”

Cruz got a question about his eligibility from a voter at a campaign event for the first time today. His response was … pitiful, frankly:

That’s cute, and it’s of a piece with Cruz claiming yesterday that McCain is after him about his eligibility only because he supports establishment heartthrob Marco Rubio. (McCain hasn’t endorsed Rubio yet, but I wouldn’t bet against it happening later this month.) It wasn’t the “Washington cartel” that injected this issue into the media’s bloodstream, though; it was Cruz’s BFF Donald, who’s now eager to kneecap him in Iowa by raising doubts about his qualifications for the office. Jeb Bush put it well in an interview with Sean Hannity yesterday: “You know this is what Trump does. He says something and then he pulls back. ‘Well I didn’t say it, someone else said it. I’m just repeating what someone else said.’ Come on man. Let’s get to the issues.” But Cruz can’t say what Bush said because he refuses to waver from his nonaggression pact with Trump, so he’s left here feebly trying to blame Beltway insiders for an attack that was launched on him by Mr. Outsider. Trump could walk over to Cruz at next week’s debate and punch him in the nuts and Cruz, doubled over in pain, would gasp, “I’ll bet the Washington cartel really enjoyed that.” Whatever.

A few Cruz fans tweeted at me this afternoon that I’m missing the point and that Cruz meant to imply that Trump is part of the “Washington cartel.” Er, no, he didn’t. For one thing, it would completely undermine Cruz’s long game of pandering to Trump’s supporters in hopes of becoming their second choice. There’s no insult he could toss at Trump more grave than to accuse him of being the sort of same center-left fatcat elitist that he routinely accuses Beltway regulars of being. Trump’s cult of personality would be appalled. Cruz hasn’t cheerily let himself be slapped around by Trump for this long without retaliating only to go nuclear on him now. For another thing, how can Cruz accuse Trump of being part of the “Washington cartel” when he’s praised Trump repeatedly in the past for “taking on the Washington cartel”? That was part of his long game too — paint himself and Trump as kindred populist spirits, hoping and expecting that Trump’s voters would migrate to him in time. Now he’s having an epiphany over the eligibility issue that Trump is actually a cronyist RINO stalking horse of the GOP establishment tasked with blowing Cruz up? Please. The “Washington cartel” nonsense here is nothing more or less than Cruz attempting to shift blame for the eligibility issue from Trump, whom he can’t afford to alienate, to McCain, a much safer villain. The ironic truth is that it’s some of the most “establishment” guys in the party who have come to Cruz’s defense on eligibility — Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, even his new nemesis Marco Rubio. If Cruz insists on eating Trump’s sh*t for strategic reasons, that’s fine, but the rest of us shouldn’t be under any illusions about who’s serving it up.