Three weeks after he was elected to the Senate, Ted Cruz delivered a speech in a dimly lit downtown Washington hotel ballroom addressing the thumping his party had sustained at the ballot box, particularly at the hands of Hispanic voters.
“The issue is not, as the media would suggest, 100 percent about immigration,” the Texas senator told the banquet of conservatives, deriding the press corps’s “obsessive” focus on that issue.
“I think Republicans need to remain a party that supports securing the border and stopping illegal immigration and at the same time welcomes and celebrates, champions legal immigration,” he continued, to thunderclaps from the favorable audience. “It ain’t the answer just to suddenly talk about immigration and forget everything else. I’m going to suggest instead a different path.”
Just as the immigration debate is heating up—and Cruz’s own potential presidential aspirations are coming into sharp focus—the 42-year-old Cuban-American is now looking to make good on his word.
No Republican senator has been a more audacious opponent of the bipartisan approach to immigration than Cruz. And being a freshman who has been a part of the seniority-driven chamber for less than four months makes the play even bolder.
“In my view, any bill that insists upon [a pathway to citizenship] jeopardizes the likelihood of passing any immigration-reform bill,” Cruz told the Senate Judiciary Committee in no uncertain terms last week.
Of course, that’s the central tenet of the legislation—pitting him squarely against the bill’s chief sponsor and fellow Hispanic, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, also a 2016 presidential contender.
If Rubio is set to become the vaunted hero if the compromise holds, Cruz will be remembered, for better or worse, as the wrecking ball if it crumbles.
Even as Rubio has doggedly tried to frame the package as a “border security” bill—complete with new technology to beef up surveillance of high-risk sections of the 2,000-mile Mexican border—Cruz has sliced it up as yet another government boondoggle filled with false promises.
The Tea Party favorite notes that a mere 58 of the bill’s 844 pages address the border-security component and says the proposed security triggers that will be used to legalize new citizens lack real teeth. “There are no objective metrics in place to ensure any triggers in this bill will be meaningful,” Cruz said after a hearing with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
One political adviser to Cruz explained that while the senator has refrained from a full-frontal shelling of immigration reform, it’s highly unlikely he’ll ever get to a place where he can vote “aye.”
“Ted really would like to do some real immigration reform in a way that doesn’t alienate Hispanic voters, but the path that they’ve gone down is not something he’s going to support,” said the adviser, who declined to be identified.
“It gives too much control to the Obama administration, allowing them to do studies that he doesn’t believe they have any good intention of doing. The big picture is not a bad sell, it’s when you dive in, that’s where the devil lies. You’ll see Cruz focus on the flaws of the details rather than attacking it on the big picture.”
But while the adviser insisted that Cruz’s position isn’t being calibrated with an eye toward a 2016 White House run, he concedes that being a leader of the opposition to “amnesty” would be helpful in early primary states like South Carolina, where the senator is scheduled to address a state GOP dinner on Friday. National Review reports that Cruz is seriously considering a presidential bid.
The adviser also points out that other reform advocates include John McCain, as well as prominent liberal Democrats such as Chuck Schumer: “I think Marco’s kind of hurt himself here, with the Republican base.” (A Cruz spokeswoman said the senator was too busy for an interview.)
In other words, Cruz in no way wants to be associated with those he sees as the Senate’s “squishes”—a term he recently used to slight some of his Republican colleagues who complained about his aggressive posture during the gun-control debate.
Rubio’s team has every reason to play nice. His playbook throughout the fight has been to engage critics and their concerns constructively—a concerted effort to slowly win, or at least placate, the hearts and minds of the conservative commentariat. There’s no advantage to getting into a public knife fight with the pugnacious and self-assured Cruz, who is building a following with the same grassroots conservatives Rubio will need in a White House campaign.
“We have a ton of respect for Senator Cruz and value his suggestions for how to improve the immigration legislation,” said Rubio spokesman Alex Conant. “We’ve talked a lot with Senator Cruz and his staff and really appreciate their insights. As somebody from a border state with many immigrants, Senator Cruz will have important suggestions for how to help improve the proposal.”
But Cruz’s operation is counting on the entire thing to die, if not in the Senate, then almost surely once it gets to the House. And then Cruz could claim to be the one 2016er who fought comprehensive immigration reform and won.
That would be the textbook play in a Republican primary, based on past experience. Remember the flak that Texas Gov. Rick Perry took last cycle for calling critics of illegal immigrants “heartless”? Or the backlash Newt Gingrich provoked when he declared that longtime undocumented residents should be allowed to remain in the country?
Dan Harvell, a South Carolina GOP county party chairman, said he “totally” agrees with Cruz’s opposition to immigration reform. “I think he’s right, and we don’t need to be so tolerant as many would have us be,” he said.
Yet some Republicans pollsters contend that attitudes in their party are gradually softening, with one recent McLaughlin & Associates survey showing that 66 percent of GOPers support reform that includes a waiting period of several years for those who came here illegally.
“Cruz opposing a security fix that’s needed in immigration reform won’t help,” said John McLaughlin, who conducted the March poll. “On the other hand, if like Sen. Rand Paul he is able to make important changes and helps fix a broken system, he may really boost his standing well beyond his Texas conservative base.”
But some of those who marshal the troops and resources in primary campaigns are not only standing in solidarity with Cruz but notably souring on Rubio.
“I think what Marco Rubio’s doing right now is not how the Senate is supposed to be operated. It’s certainly not deliberative,” said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots.
Cruz “is asking the tough questions, especially in the hearings,” she said. “He’s doing what he can to force the Senate to be more deliberative. That’s a good thing. And the people in the Tea Party movement appreciate that.”