Marco Rubio is robbing Ted Cruz of his immigration attack.

Marco Rubio Is Robbing Ted Cruz of His Best Weapon

Marco Rubio Is Robbing Ted Cruz of His Best Weapon

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Dec. 17 2015 7:02 PM

Marco Rubio Is Robbing Ted Cruz of His Best Weapon

The Texas senator’s lies are catching up with him.

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Sen. Marco Rubio, left, and Sen. Ted Cruz.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Mike Blake/Reuters.

Sen. Marco Rubio will never be able to convince Republican primary voters that he and Sen. Ted Cruz have the same views on legalizing undocumented immigrants. The simple fact is that Rubio co-authored and pushed for a high-profile bill that would have granted legal status and, eventually, citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants, while Cruz was an opponent of the bill. This doesn’t mean that Rubio’s charge is an exercise in futility, though. If Rubio can dust up Cruz’s immigration record even slightly, he will have done something valuable.

Jim Newell Jim Newell

Jim Newell is a Slate staff writer.

The dispute Rubio and Cruz are having is an annoyingly complicated one, documented ably here by MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin. Rubio is arguing that he and Cruz have roughly the same policy position regarding the millions of undocumented immigrants: that once the border is properly secured (whatever that means), we can talk about conferring legal status—not citizenship—to undocumented immigrants.

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Though Cruz is now saying he would never consider conferring legal status—“attrition through enforcement” is his jarring turn of phrase du jour—his record is cloudier. During the debate over the 2013 Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform bill, Cruz offered an amendment that would have “stripped out a proposal for a path to citizenship for those currently in the country illegally… [but] would have purposefully left intact the bill’s provisions to provide legal status for them,” as FactCheck.org writes. Cruz argues that the amendment was a “poison pill” to show “hypocrisy” on the part of the Gang of Eight negotiators. By Cruz’s account, legal status would have satisfactorily resolved the Gang of Eight’s self-described imperative of drawing undocumented immigrants “out of the shadows,” so making negotiators reject it was a sign that they were determined to settle at nothing less than full citizenship as their principal goal for reform. He argues now that he never had any intention of voting for the comprehensive immigration reform bill.

It is indeed true that Cruz spends most of his time in the Senate playing stupid messaging games with amendments. The problem is that he said numerous times through the immigration debate that he was open to legal status as a compromise: to the right of Rubio and the (ultimately doomed) centrist reformers, but not in league with the “throw ’em all out!” right-wing populists he’s with today. In a May 2013 interview with his old mentor, Princeton’s Robert George, for example, Cruz forthrightly expressed that he “want[ed] to see common sense immigration reform pass” into law and that he believed his amendment, stripping citizenship but preserving legal status, was the key to doing so.

When Fox News’ Bret Baier brought up Cruz’s past statements in an interview Wednesday, the usually unflappable Cruz was fumbling for words. That’s a good sign that Rubio is well on his way to making the sort of damage he needs to make.   

I totally believe Cruz now when he says that he never really had any intention of voting for the Gang of Eight bill under any circumstances. So congratulations to him: He’s just admitted that he was lying throughout 2013. He was trying to have it both ways: to say that he was open and willing to work on reform, as so many Republicans felt they needed to be following Mitt Romney’s defeat, but to stay away from this particular package that was likely to blow up among the base.

Thanks to Rubio’s prodding, Cruz’s overly cute tricks in 2013 have caught up to him. He now has a choice between being either a flip-flopper on legalization or a liar. Yes, Rubio was and remains more moderate on immigration than Cruz. But Cruz won’t see attacking Rubio’s 2013 record as such a layup anymore.