It happened at the Republican presidential debate tonight in Las Vegas when co-moderator Hugh Hewitt pushed the Texas senator to distinguish himself from Trump, which in the past Cruz has been uniquely reluctant to do. While the rest of the GOP field spent the past six months calling Trump names and rolling their eyes, Cruz staunchly refused to ding The Donald.
“Senator Cruz, you’ve said you disagree with Mr. Trump’s policy,” Hewitt said. “I don’t want to cage-match, but Republican primary voters deserve to know, with the kind of specificity that you delivered in your nine Supreme Court arguments, how you disagree with Mr. Trump. Would you spell that out with us?”
Cruz didn’t exactly go full Supreme Court Lawyer on the debate stage, but he did go after Trump’s plan to ban Muslims from traveling to the United States.
“I’m reminded of what FDR’s grandfather said,” Cruz said. “He said all horse thieves are Democrats, but not all Democrats are horse thieves. In this instance, there are millions of peaceful Muslims across the world, in countries like India where there are not the problems we are seeing in nations that are controlled, have territory controlled, by al Qaeda or ISIS.”
“It’s not a war on a faith,” he continued. “It’s a war on a political ideology that seeks to murder us.”
This implication—that Trump wants to go to war against the religion of Islam—is Cruz’s sharpest criticism yet of the mogul on a specific policy.
That said, Cruz and Trump’s views on Islamic immigration don’t actually differ too dramatically in practice. Trump, of course, wants a temporary moratorium on any Muslim traveling to the United States. Cruz, meanwhile, uses rhetoric that comes as close as possible to suggesting the same thing. He won fawning coverage from Breitbart News for calling on Obama to “place an immediate moratorium on refugees from countries with a significant al Qaeda or ISIS presence.”
Cruz also backed an amendment Rand Paul introduced that would have put a temporary block on immigration from 33 so-called “high risk” countries—the bulk of which were majority Muslim. That amendment would have had the effect of dramatically reducing the number of Muslims legally allowed to immigrate to the U.S. Only 10 senators voted for it, and Marco Rubio wasn’t one of them.
Still, Cruz’s opposition to a religious test for immigrants puts him at odds with Trump. And it means we might be getting fireworks soon; Trump announced on Twitter last week that he couldn’t wait for Cruz to attack him. And Tuesday night, he got what he wished for.
That said, Cruz still played it safe when given a second opportunity to needle the Trump-dragon. When a moderator asked the candidate about questions he raised in a closed-door donor meeting about Trump’s judgment, Cruz went back into Mr. Nice Guy mode.
“I said that the judgment that every voter is making of every one of us up here is who has the experience, who has the vision, who has the judgment to be commander-in-chief,” he said. “That is a standard I’m held to. And in the course of this discussion about our foreign policy threats, it illustrates the need for clarity of focus.”
Moderator Dana Bash then followed up with another question about Cruz’s suggestion that Trump doesn’t have good enough judgment to hold the nuclear codes. And Cruz was cagey.
“That is a judgment for every voter to make,” he retorted. “But all nine of the people here would make an infinitely better commander-in-chief than Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton,” he retorted.
Judging by his facial expressions, Trump had no complaint with Cruz’s analysis. So the evening didn’t quite turn into Mad Max: Cruz v. Trump. But it also wasn’t as much of a lovefest as it could have been.