LAS VEGAS, NEVADA -- Last night's primetime Republican debate was, for the most part, a serious and substantive discussion of foreign policy and national security; anything less would have been a disservice to voters and the party. The field rose to the moment, with each candidate performing either relatively or objectively well. Overall, I called Donald Trump the political winner of the debate, graded on a curve. Trump was slightly less incoherent on substance than we've seen in the past (though still truly terrible and ignorant on a number of issues), and had moments that showcased (perhaps temporary) magnanimity and projections of strength. It strikes me as very unlikely that he damaged himself at all within the primary election context, and therefore as the current frontrunner, he won. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio -- extremely sharp, informed and capable debaters -- traded heavy blows on surveillance and foreign interventions, highlighting important fault lines within the party. Rand Paul, who often sided with Cruz against Rubio by emphasizing civil liberties at home and non-intervention abroad, broke little new ground on these issues, but delivered his points more effectively than in the past. It was his strongest debate so far, having snuck in by the skin of his teeth. His searing constitutional critique of Trump was important, as was his lonely reminder that America has a massive and growing debt burden. Chris Christie played his former federal prosecutor card frequently, and to solid effect. He also cast the bickering among the Senators on stage as characteristic of Congress' petty dysfunction, underscoring the importance of putting a chief executive in the Oval Office. He had a good night. Jeb Bush faltered in opening and closing statements, but turned in his best showing to date, refusing to shy away from confrontations with Trump, and delivering a few memorable lines ("you're not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency"). Carly Fiorina was at her best playing the role of prosecutorial attack dog against Hillary Clinton, and John Kasich was less hectoring than he's been at recent forums. Ben Carson was likable but forgettable as he battled a cold. To his credit, the renowned surgeon was equipped with more foreign policy facts, having done a bit of much-needed homework. Let's focus on the portion of the evening in which an inevitable face-to-face confrontation over immigration broke out between Rubio and Cruz, whom CNN seemed intent on pitting against each other all night. Here's the exchange:
The first two-and-a-half minutes of the clip entails Rubio laying out the very best, most elegant immigration answer he has at his disposal, given his history as a co-author and champion of the fatally flawed 'Gang of Eight' legislation. Message: I've learned my lesson that the American people won't accept other reforms, which I still support on a piecemeal basis, until and unless we implement effective border security first. That's all well and good today, but why did it take a wrenching debate, in which he sided with the likes of Chuck Schumer, for Rubio to learn that lesson? And was it really such a shock, given the federal government's epic ineptitude on, say, the Obamacare roll-out? Also, hadn't Rubio already rejected a "path to citizenship" as "code for amnesty" as a Senate candidate in 2010? All totally legitimate, difficult questions. When the debate questioning turned to Cruz, he pounced, understandably and correctly pointing out that he helped lead the charge against the Gang of Eight's bill. He went on to say that one of the most "troubling aspects" of that legislation was that it would have granted President Obama blanket authority to admit refugees, including Syrian refugees, "without any background checks whatsoever." This claim is factually false. There are plenty of aspects of that proposal that invite serious critiques, which makes inventing one to exploit a current prevailing public fear look even cheaper. In response, Rubio charged that Cruz supported mass legalization of illegal immigrants and proposed huge increases in federal issuance of certain immigration visas and green cards. Cruz shook his head throughout Rubio's rejoinder, but Rubio was correct on these points. Cruz has flip-flopped dramatically on a number of his previous immigration views. The Texan shot back, "it is not accurate, what he just said, that I supported legalization." Sorry, Senator. It's on tape:
That was Ted Cruz in 2013, urging his colleagues to support his amendment to the Gang of Eight bill, which he expressly says would leave a path to permanent legal status for illegal immigrants intact. Quote:
"I don't want immigration reform to fail. I want immigration reform to pass. So I would urge people of good faith on both sides of the aisle: If the objective is to pass common-sense immigration reform that secures the borders, that improves legal immigration, and that allows those who are here illegally to come in out of the shadows, then we should look for areas of bipartisan agreement, and compromise to come together. And this amendment, I believe, if this amendment were to pass, the chances of this bill passing into law would increase dramatically."
Cruz also affirmed at the time that his proposed changes to the existing bill would grant eligibility for permanent legal status to millions: "The eleven million people who are here illegally would be granted legal status once the border is secure...and indeed, they would be eligible for permanent legal residency." Cruz now indignantly claims that the black-and-white evidence in these two clips is "not accurate." Some of the Texas Senator's defenders say that his pro-legalization amendment was merely a strategic move designed to prove a point (that Democrats were insistent upon citizenship, not legalization, because they were hunting for votes), or to help torpedo the broader legislation. But that's not what Ted Cruz said at the time. He told journalist Byron York that his amendment was a good faith effort to fix the bill "so that it actually solves the problem." He echoed this sentiment at a Princeton University alumni event: “The amendment I introduced affected only citizenship; it did not affect the underlying legalization in the Gang of Eight bill,” he said. "My effort in introducing [my amendmentss] was to find solution that reflected common ground and fixed the problem.” Senator Ted Cruz did, clearly and provably, favor mass legalization of legal immigrants. He proposed it, he advocated for it, and he asked his colleagues to pass it. To say otherwise now is deeply disingenuous. Rubio, eager to highlight this point to take some of the sting out of Cruz's attack, demanded to know if today's Ted Cruz would "rule out" proposing legalization again:
Rubio: Does Ted Cruz rule out ever legalizing people who are in the country illegally now?
CNN: Senator Cruz?
Cruz: I have never supported legalization...
Rubio: Do you rule it out?
Cruz: I have never supported legalization, and I do not intend to support legalization.
The public record refutes the first sentence of Cruz's final answer, and his use of "intend" is a slippery weasel word, chosen very carefully by a very smart litigator. Cruz wants to bash Rubio as pro-'amnesty' (again, there's ample material to work with) while preserving rhetorical wiggle room for himself to tack back to the center by proposing widespread, non-citizenship legalization. This has been stance for some time, even as he's been exceedingly cagey about it in recent weeks. Cruz is likely concerned that by conceding this point, his criticism of Rubio would be less potent and might allow Rubio to further "muddy the waters," as he puts it in the debate clip. And that is what Rubio's trying to do, by the way. Unfortunately, in order to frame primary voters' choice in the most politically advantageous way possible, Cruz is being dishonest -- while accusing Rubio of being dishonest. Disappointing.