Politics & Policy

Like a Slick Lawyer, Cruz Parsed His Words on the Question of Amnesty

(Justin Sullivan/Getty)

The Nevada debate was supposed to represent a dangerous moment for Marco Rubio. Finally, the pundits predicted, he would be forced to explain his support for the hated Gang of Eight bill, the fractured shards of which still hang as deadweight around his neck. Worse, he would likely be held to the fire by no less than the surging Ted Cruz. Such an altercation, in the dull parlance of the 7 p.m. prognosticators, was sure to be a “game changer.”

As it happened, the exchange was something of a bust. Having obviously prepared for the challenge, Rubio came through looking straightforward, polished, and confident in his own skin. Ted Cruz, by contrast, came out looking . . . well, lawyerly. Asked by Dana Bash about his prior support for “amnesty,” Rubio conceded that he had “learned” a “lesson” from his mistake in 2013. Nevertheless, he steadfastly held his ground on the broader question of a “path to citizenship.” “I personally am open to allowing people to apply for a green card,” he confirmed. “That may not be a majority position in my party, but that’s down the road.”

There are a host of good reasons for Republicans to dislike this position. One could reasonably argue that a) Rubio demonstrated such rank naïveté in 2013 as to render him unfit for the White House; b) by reneging on his election-season promises, Rubio showed that he simply cannot be trusted with the conservative brand; and c) Rubio’s position is bad public policy and should be resisted by voters. Furthermore, one could credibly contend that to elect a president who is out of kilter with the majority of his own party would only hasten the prospect of a right-wing civil war. What one could not do, however, is claim that Rubio was evasively “muddying the water.” In fact, he was admirably clear. “Vote for me,” he seemed to say, “and this is what you’re going to get.”

RELATED: In Las Vegas Debate, a Cruz-Rubio Showdown on Immigration

The same, alas, cannot be said of Ted Cruz. Asked by Rubio whether he had ever fought “to support legalizing people that are in this country illegally?” — and, moreover, whether he would “rule out#….#legalizing people that are in this country now?” — Cruz eschewed the “straight talk” for which he so desperately wants to be famous and retreated into the worst of lawyers’ poses: “I have never supported legalization,” he claimed, “and I do not intend to support legalization.” Then, for good measure, he suggested that Rubio was trying to confuse his viewers.

#share#As one might imagine, the veracity of Cruz’s statement rests heavily upon what he means by “legalization.” Had he been pressed further, Cruz would presumably have argued that, unlike Marco Rubio, he has never supported a “path to citizenship.” As far as I can see, that’s absolutely true. But — and this matters a great deal — that’s not really what most Republican voters mean by “legalization,” is it? Over the last few years, that word has been wielded by border hawks as a catch-all criticism of any proposal that would yield governmental recognition of those who are in America illegally. By that standard, Cruz’s asseveration was clearly false. And, one suspects, he knew it.

RELATED: Cruz vs. Rubio on Surveillance

In 2013, Cruz told the New York Times that his amendment to Rubio’s Gang of Eight bill “removed the path to citizenship, but it did not change the underlying work permit.” Was this “legalization”? Evidently, that depends. Now that he is running for president, Cruz insists that his amendment should not be counted against him because it was nothing more than an ingenious ploy to expose the Gang of Eight’s flaws and kill their bill stone dead. In 2013, however, he was filmed characterizing the offering in completely the opposite manner. Addressing “rightly concerned” immigration advocates, Cruz portrayed his amendment as a guarantee not only that “those 11 million under this current bill would still be eligible for RPI status” but that they would be “eligible for legal status and indeed under the terms of the bill they would be eligible for LPR status as well, so that they are out of the shadows.” Moreover, he explained bluntly that if his offering were “to pass, the chances of this bill passing into law would increase dramatically.” “I would urge the committee,” he said flatly, “to give it full consideration and to adopt the amendment.”

The bottom line? Somebody is being lied to here.

We expect duplicity from Bill Clinton or Harry Reid, not from the straight-talking, Churchillian foe of all that is unholy about Washington, D.C.

Coming from anybody in public life, this duplicity would be disappointing. But from Ted Cruz, the self-styled anti-politician, it is disastrous. This is the sort of slimy behavior that we expect from Bill Clinton or Harry Reid, not from the straight-talking, Churchillian foe of all that is unholy about Washington, D.C. There is a time for parsing the difference between “legalization” and “citizenship,” and for debating the strength of “intend to” versus “will never.” But primary season is not it. Now is the summer of strong promises and bold visions. The negotiating can come later.

Unfortunately, indulging in clever linguistic games is rather a hobby of Cruz’s. Asked earlier this year to comment on the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, Cruz suggested on NPR that “those who are not parties to the suit are not bound by it.” In the American system of law, he continued, there is “no legal obligation” on the part of either citizens or the government “to acquiesce to anything other than a court judgment.”

#related#Narrowly speaking, this was of course true. Practically, though, it was willfully misleading. Because both federal district and circuit courts are required to follow the Supreme Court’s precedents, those who rebel against a given ruling will inevitably find their recalcitrance short-lived. As an accomplished lawyer and an extremely smart man, Cruz understood this well. That he chose to mislead his supporters nonetheless betrayed a certain disrespect for their intelligence. If, as his truest advocates continue to suggest, he is the “only one” who can beat the mistrusted front-runner on the other side of the aisle, he’ll have to do better next time around.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer for National Review.

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