Whatever your feelings about Texas’ junior senator, it must be said: The man sure can debate.
Even if one disagrees with the substance of his statements, it’s hard to not appreciate his skill at verbally sparring with his opponents, parrying even the most pointed assault with ease.
So it was fascinating to watch Ted Cruz back himself into a corner during Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate on an issue that has come to frame the contest for his party: immigration.
During a heated exchange with Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Cruz told the audience, “I have never supported legalization and I do not intend to support legalization.”
Cruz was referring to the failed Gang of Eight legislation, of which Rubio was an author - a role that earned him substantial criticism from the party base.
The bill’s opponents denounced it as amnesty, in part because it offered legal status to millions of immigrants before needed border security measures were implemented.
“Indeed, I led the fight against his legalization and amnesty,” Cruz declared, affirming his opposition to Rubio’s bill.
It was the kind of response one expects to hear in a debate - concise, definitive, vehement.
It was also questionable, at best.
To be fair, Cruz did oppose the Gang of Eight legislation, as did many Republicans.
But he also offered amendments that in his own words were an attempt to “find (a) solution that reflected common ground and fixed the problem.”
For example, Cruz’s proposal included a three-year waiting period for provisional legal status while border security measures where imposed.
And according to Cruz, he believed if his amendments were adopted, the bill would pass.
Speaking at a Princeton University alumni event in May 2013, Cruz described his proposals:
“The underlying bill from the Gang of Eight provides for legal status for those who are here illegally. . The amendment I introduced would not change any of that, which would mean the 11 million who are here illegally would all come out of the shadows and be legalized under the Gang of Eight’s bill.
“It would simply provide that there are consequences for having come illegally, for not having followed the legal rules, for not having waited in line, and those consequences are that those individuals are not eligible for citizenship.”
And as the National Review’s Jim Geraghty points out, “At no point did (Cruz) describe his amendment as a poison bill or procedural maneuver to derail the bill. He had every chance to say he opposed a legal status for illegal immigrants and didn’t do so.”
There were significant problems with the Gang of Eight bill, and Cruz’s amendments would not have resolved them all. But by his own description, they appeared to be an earnest and practical attempt to reach compromise on an issue that has reached its tipping point. That’s a Ted Cruz many of us don’t know.
On Tuesday, Cruz’s characteristic, unmitigated bluster returned.
The Cruz campaign staff immediately reinforced his opposition to legalization by saying, “His plan is attrition through enforcement.”
The phrasing is far more careful than that of real estate mogul and fellow candidate Donald Trump, but the position sounds similar to Trump’s “mass deportation,” a solution as improbable as Gov. Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation.”
Aside from the rhetorical acrobatics Cruz must employ to explain away what appears to be a dramatic shift in his policy stance, his comments raise other potential problems for his campaign.
A firm and unyielding approach to illegal immigration plays well with the Republican base, especially during a crowded primary.
But the general election will be different.
Rubio’s position on immigration has also shifted since his role in the failed Gang of Eight bill.
But Rubio, while scripted, appears far more forthright.
Asked Tuesday night if the very long path to legalization he advocates should end at citizenship, Rubio conceded both that he is “personally open” to that possibility and that he knows such a position is unpopular among many in his party.
Cruz, in contrast, concedes nothing, including his dubious shift to “attrition through enforcement.”
Even the best debate skills can’t cloak a lie.