In the middle of tonight’s debate, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and Rand Paul spent about ten minutes trading accusations of inconsistency on immigration reform. It felt like the last ten minutes of The Departed, where almost every major character suffered a grievous injury.
Every leading candidate on that stage has taken, in the past couple years, at least one big step in the restrictionist direction. Most notably, Rubio used to support a path to citizenship; now he wants a path to legalization — in November, he indicated he was open to providing a path to citizenship after ten years. (Key distinction: legal non-citizens can’t vote. Some strongly suspect that if 11 million were legalized, Democrats would start a major push to give them citizenship, calling it a great injustice, etc.) In 2013, Cruz pushed for an amendment that would have barred the 11 million from citizenship, but permitted legalization. Now he opposes a path to legalization. Everybody seems to think that they can deflect accusations of flip-flopping by pointing to their rivals’ shifts in position.
I think Iowa caucus-goers who are still undecided or wavering, who are really mad about illegal immigration, turn to Donald Trump – never mind that Trump wants to bring back “the good ones” among illegal immigrants in an expedited process. Trump wasn’t there to have his past statements showcased to the audiences at home and in the hall. Could you imagine if Trump had stayed, and Megyn Kelly confronted Trump, showing his old quotes on video? The resulting explosion would have been epic.
The video clips played by Fox News were great journalism – they eliminated the instinctive, “Megyn, I never said that,” or “Chris, you’re taking my words out of context” – but they were brutal for the two leading non-Trump candidates.
I cannot believe Rubio doesn’t just say, “yeah, I’ve rethought the issue, and concluded the path to citizenship is a bad idea” instead of trying to insist he really said “blanket amnesty,” and meant something different. Still, for what it’s worth, Frank Luntz said his focus group loved Rubio’s answers. To political junkies like us, “I’m not going to use unconstitutional executive orders like Barack Obama” sounds like a dodge because it’s about process, not the ultimate fate of illegal immigrants – but to ordinary voters, it seems common-sense and decent. Rubio’s bad nights are still better than most candidates’ good nights.
Trump was elsewhere in Des Moines, welcoming the metaphorical genuflection of Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. Gentlemen, usually you announce the suspension of your campaign before you effectively endorse another candidate.
Ben Carson had a pretty good night. Despite flubbing policy details, he is an indisputably smart and accomplished man, whose heart almost always seems to be in the right place, and who seems like a nice, dignified, polite man in a primary that has generally lacked niceties, dignity, and manners. In a normal year, his style would seem to match well with Iowans. But this seems like a severely abnormal year.
Cruz had the guts to criticize ethanol mandates and subsidies before an audience in Iowa. He deserves roaring applause for that; but considering the state’s passionate, embarrassing love affair with big government when it helps their preferred industries, it will probably hurt him. Forty-nine other states ought to give him an ‘attaboy’ for his courage.