He doesn’t dare utter the word “Trump” here but there’s no mistaking where the blame lies for the sins he’s complaining about. How is it, he wonders, that my supposedly hawkish party is now endorsing amnesty not just for DACA enrollees but for everyone eligible for DACA — 1.8 million people — replete with a path to citizenship, which not even Barack Obama attempted to create via executive amnesty? Wellllll, the answer’s simple: Those are the two key prongs of Trump’s own immigration proposal. And that’s why his bill went down to humiliating defeat in the Senate today, unable to muster even 40 votes. The 14 Republicans who voted no on it were a mix of softies like Susan Collins, who thought Trump’s bill was too harsh in scaling back chain migration, and hardliners like Cruz, who thought it was way too soft in handing out amnesty candy. A man who’s up for reelection this year in a deep red state isn’t going to throw any roundhouses at our populist Republican president, but make no mistake. This is a jab.
But why? With Cruz there’s always a political calculation happening yet I can’t figure out the calculation here. If he were facing a primary challenge in Texas from the right, this would make sense: In a contest of who can be more of a hard-ass on red-meat populist issues, he’s resolved to make sure he won’t be out-hard-assed. But he’s facing no challenge. In fact, Cruz was the one incumbent whom even Steve Bannon said he had no interest in primarying back when it looked like Bannon might mount a credible national effort against sitting GOP senators. Cruz doesn’t need to tack right. If anything, he needs to worry about his left flank. Beto O’Rourke, the Democrats’ Senate challenger, enjoys some name recognition in the state and outraised Cruz in the last quarter. And Texas isn’t *quite* the foregone conclusion this year that you may think it is. Cruz is still a very heavy favorite but neither he nor Trump is exceptionally popular in the state. If the national blue wave shows up, if Trump’s job approval deteriorates, and if Democrats find a wedge issue to mobilize Texas’s large Latino minority, Cruz is beatable.
So why go right on this issue instead of towards the center? A Fox News poll out today has 65 percent of the public agreeing with the idea that all illegals, not just DREAMers, should be allowed to remain in the country and eventually apply for citizenship. (Republicans are only narrowly opposed at 43/49.) A poll of Texas taken in October found 59 percent would continue the DACA program, allowing enrollees to remain here legally. Cruz is already a hate object for the left, but by getting even to Trump’s right on DACA and DREAM, he’s handing Texas Democrats a rallying point against him. I don’t get it.
The best I can do in guessing his calculation is to say that he thinks he can bait O’Rourke into overcorrecting. If O’Rourke goes hard left in sobbing about amnesty at every opportunity on the trail in hopes of pandering to Latino voters, some Republicans who aren’t crazy about Cruz may back him simply because they’re repelled by the Democratic alternative. There’s a lot of votes in that crowd potentially in a red state like Texas. The other possible strategy here is that Cruz is wagering that he’s effectively unbeatable in Texas, or at least that he can’t be beaten from the left on immigration. In which case he might as well position himself for 2024 by being King Hard-ass against amnesty now. Cruz must be haunted by the fact that he spent three years in the Senate polishing his credentials as Mr Conservative ahead of 2016 only to have Trump jump in and blow him up by displaying impeccable border-hawk cred. Cruz may have resolved to never again let anyone get to his right on immigration, whatever the risk that may pose for his reelection bid this year. He’s running for president as a populist in 2024 and when he does he’s going to point back to this speech and today’s vote as proof that he out-hawked even Donald Trump when the chips were down on immigration. Beat that.