Mr. Cruz was asked Wednesday night by a reporter in Kingston N.H., if there was still a distinction between his position on immigration and Mr. Rubio’s.
“It is not complicated,” Mr. Cruz said, then paused before adding, “that on the seminal fight over amnesty in Congress, the Gang of Eight bill that was the brainchild of Chuck Schumer and Barack Obama, that would have granted amnesty to 12 million people here illegally, that I stood with the American people and led the fight to defeat it in the United States Congress.”
Mr. Cruz said: “In my view, if Republicans nominate for president a candidate who supports amnesty, we will have given up one of the major distinctions with Hillary Clinton and we will lose the general election. That is a path to losing."
With it clear that attacking Rubio on his use of a GOP party credit card really isn't going anywhere fast, we turn to the assault on Rubio's immigration Gang of Eight efforts, something that Greg Sargent notes was in the works for some time now.
Cruz’s broadside contains two key ingredients. The first is the suggestion that Rubio’s support for Obama/Schumer comprehensive reform shows that his current posture on immigration is not to be trusted. Rubio has retreated to the position that the border must be fully secured before we can even discuss legalization. And Rubio has also sought to reassure conservatives with a careful straddle: he doesn’t support Donald Trump’s call for deportation of the 11 million, but neither does he align himself fully with Jeb Bush’s and John Kasich’s forceful moral and practical criticism of Trump’s vow of mass removal. However, conservatives are not convinced: they want him to fully rule out any future “amnesty,” which (by their lights) he has not done yet. Cruz may also press Rubio to say whether he’d immediately end Obama’s executive action protecting the DREAMers from deportation. It’s a point on which Rubio has fudged, and it’s a legitimate question.
The second key ingredient in Cruz’s monologue goes to the heart of competing theories of the 2016 presidential race. Cruz is claiming that only a GOP nominee who is unequivocally opposed to “amnesty” can draw the sharp contrast with the Democratic nominee that is necessary for a Republican to win the White House. (This is of a piece with a broader belief that Republicans must break their addiction to nominating squishy moderates rather than Real Conservatives.)
This theory is diametrically opposed to the prevailing theory among many GOP strategists (including, at one point, the RNC), which holds that to win in future national elections, the GOP must embrace meaningful immigration reform that reorients the party as more culturally welcoming and inclusive, broadening its demographic appeal. It’s hard to say where Rubio now stands on this spectrum — the hedging in his immigration pronouncements seems designed to keep that vague. But Rubio strategists are reportedly convincedthat his ability to maintain mainstream appeal will be key to his success, which suggests he hopes to reserve room to pivot back to a more pro-reform posture later, if he wins the nomination. Cruz may challenge Rubio in ways designed to foreclose that possibility.
In other words, the biggest difference among Trump, Carson, Cruz and Rubio, the four leading GOP candidates in the polls right now, is that Rubio is the establishment candidate. What makes him the establishment candidate more than anything else is his position on immigration. If Rubio is forced the publicly scrap that position (and he will), the GOP will almost certainly nominate a candidate whose stated position is mass deportation of Latinos. The only difference is how many and how quickly the deportations begin.
Republicans believe they don't need Latino voters in order to win the White House in 2016. At all.
We'll find out if it's true.