For ’tis the sport to have the engineer hoist with his own petard. Ted Cruz went on the attack against Marco Rubio on immigration last month in a largely successful attempt to blunt the momentum his fellow Senator had begun to garner. Rubio pushed back, reminding people that Cruz had attached a rider to the same bill for which Cruz was attacking, and that put Cruz on the defensive in a Fox News interview. Now with Iowa at stake, Donald Trump has released a new ad that focuses on Cruz’ struggle to answer the criticisms, while portraying Trump as the only candidate who will follow through on immigration:
Is this a fair representation of Cruz’ position? Not really, but then again, Cruz’ attack on Rubio turned out to be a little hypocritical, too. Cruz has shifted his position on immigration, or at least his public rhetoric; after attacking Rubio for it, he left himself open to the same attack. Left unsaid in this ad, of course, is that Trump has also flip-flopped on immigration. He publicly rebuked Mitt Romney for being too harsh and inflexible on the issue after the 2012 election. Maybe Cruz could run an ad making that case — or maybe Cruz should have been running those ads much earlier than now.
The problem for most other candidates is that they get pressed on how they plan to achieve their stated goals. Legislation and execution are complicated and nuanced, which is why immigration policy ends up being a trap for Rubio, Cruz, and others in the race. For whatever reason, Trump has been able to skate around that pressure. This ad is about as substantive as Trump gets. I’ll end illegal immigration. How exactly will Trump do that? Never mind, we’ll win, that’s all that matters. Borders? We need borders. I’ll build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. Really? How? Never mind, we’ll win, that’s all that matters.
It’s all concept, no details, and concepts are very easy to sell. That’s the Trump strategy. He’s selling gut-level emotion, not policy or intellectual coherence. The reason it works is because people think the politicians who do have policy chops and intellectual coherence are either too weak to implement conservative solutions or don’t really believe in them. It’s all about authenticity, not policy or ideology. Trump has it in spades, and even a man like Cruz — who has burnt a thousand bridges with GOP leadership over his dedication to conservative principles — comes up short in comparison.
Today’s Morning Joe panel calls this a “devastating” ad, and it probably will be. John Heilemann says it proves that Trump will spend money going negative, but Trump’s been willing to go after anyone at a moment’s notice. They then screen Cruz’ response over eminent domain, an arcane yet critical issue that goes to the heart of redistributive power in government, and the reaction is … everything you’d think it would be.
One last point about the Cruz ad: That demonstrates that even a grassroots politician like Cruz doesn’t quite grasp the electorate’s mood. That ad would have worked much better by putting Susette Kelo on camera and having her tell how the government seized her house to give the land to Pfizer, followed immediately by a clip of Trump calling eminent domain “wonderful.” Arguments in this cycle have to be gut-level, not head-level. Would that have made a dent with Trump supporters? Maybe not, but it would have framed the argument much more effectively.