All that stuff I said about Muslims and immigrants? Just kidding! (REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein)

THE MORNING PLUM:

Here’s an interesting confluence of events. On the same day that the news is filled with accounts of the GOP establishment coming to terms with Donald Trump, the Donald releases his first attack ad against Ted Cruz — a spot that doubles down on exactly the same sort of immigration rhetoric the GOP establishment types had hoped the GOP would move away from, for the good of the party.

Numerous articles this morning chronicle the various ways that GOP establishment figures are beginning to accommodate themselves to the possibility of a Trump nomination. The Post reports that some in the GOP establishment are privately reaching out to Trump, and others are persuading themselves that Trump could actually win the general election. Bloomberg reports that deep-pocketed GOP donors are coming around to the view that Trump can be negotiated with.

Meanwhile, Trump released a new ad today that attacks Ted Cruz as soft on amnesty, and shows Trump saying this:

“We don’t have a country right now. We have people pouring in. They’re pouring in. And they’re doing tremendous damage, if you look at the crime, if you look at the economy. We want to have borders. To have a country, you have to have borders. We don’t have borders right now.”

Trump attacks Cruz as pro-amnesty, based on the claim that Cruz previously embraced legalization. That’s not true. In reality, not only did Cruz never embrace legalization; he has since flatly ruled it out. That said, it is true that Trump is nonetheless to Cruz’s right on the issue.  While Cruz has only suggested that the 11 million should remain in the shadows, subject to deportation as the occasion arises under our current enforcement regime, Trump favors proactive mass deportations — i.e., rounding ’em up and shipping ’em out, through “good management,” as he puts it.

This is the candidate that pragmatic GOP aligned business elites appear to be coming around to accepting. For years, of course, many of those same GOP elites have urged the party to moderate on immigration. Some right-leaning writers have argued that this is exactly why Trump is succeeding; as wages have stagnated, GOP elites have favored immigration reform that include legalization; thus, many GOP voters (who believe immigration threatens them economically) no longer believe those elites have their true interests at heart. That may be, but the point for now is that GOP elites are coming to terms with the candidate who is farthest to the right on this issue by far.

How are they justifying this? Easy: By telling themselves that Trump doesn’t mean any of it.

One Republican-aligned business figure says some GOP elites will prefer Trump to Cruz because Trump “has no obvious core political values,” as if this is a positive, in that it makes it more likely that Trump will deal with them. One Republican donor says: “in the middle of the campaign a lot of people say things that they think are going to help them get elected.” Another donor says that while he finds Trump’s demagoguery to be wretched, that’s overshadowed by the fact that Trump is the only contender with the “entrepreneurial spirit” to solve our country’s “big problems.” Bob Dole says that Trump is preferable to Cruz because in reality, Trump is “kind of a deal-maker.” Translation: Trump won’t actually go through with all that crazy stuff he’s talking about.

As I noted the other day, the emerging argument is that Trump’s various pronouncements (even if these establishment types personally loathe Trump’s expressed values) merely reflect an entrepreneurial and adventurous spirit — they are the inevitable byproduct of thinking big, of a refusal to be constrained by convention. Come to think of it, that’s a good thing, isn’t it!

To be clear, Trump very well may not win the early states, and he may fade. If so, GOP establishment types will presumably rally to a far more acceptable alternative, if one emerges.  But for now, the rhetoric coming from them suggests that they are willing to accept Trump’s framing of the immigration debate, on the grounds that he probably isn’t serious about any of it. It’s all a big gag.

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* GOP SENATORS LAUNCH BRUTAL ATTACKS ON CRUZ: CNN reports that Republican senators are now ramping up the criticism of Ted Cruz, in fear that he’ll become their nominee. Some are saying he’s unelectable, while others, like Senator Lindsey Graham, warn that he’ll hurt the GOP downticket:

“His ability to grow the vote of the Republican Party is almost zero,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who dropped out of the presidential race and is now backing Bush, said of Cruz….Asked if he’d prefer Trump over Cruz, Graham said: “It’s a lot like being shot or poisoned: I think you get the same result.”

But will it really hurt Cruz’s chances if the same squishy GOP establishment figures who didn’t have the spine to stand up to Obumbler claim a Real Conservative like Cruz is unelectable?

* BERNIE FACES A STEEP CHALLENGE: Dave Wasserman has a hard-headed look at how difficult it will be for Bernie Sanders to win the nomination, even if he wins Iowa and New Hampshire. His problem is his concentration of support among white liberals:

98 percent  of pledged Democratic delegates will come from states with lower shares of liberal whites than Iowa and New Hampshire. Just 447 of 4,051 pledged Democratic delegates — 11 percent — are tied to results in states or districts with higher shares of college-educated whites than New Hampshire. Moreover, just 13 percent of pledged Democratic delegates will be awarded in caucus states like Iowa, which as 2008 proved, tend to bring out more liberal participants than primaries.

As Wasserman notes, a Sanders win in both early states would be consistent with Clinton winning the nomination easily. Still, the roar of Hillary-is-doomed punditry will be deafening.

* NEW HILLARY AD STRESSES HER EXPERIENCE: The Clinton campaign is up with a new ad in Iowa that shows various shots of Clinton in her role as Secretary of State, and concludes: “The presidency is the toughest job in the world. And she’s the one leader who has what it takes to get every part of the job done.”

As noted yesterday, Clinton is countering Sanders’ idealistic pitch by arguing that experience and toughness are needed to lead a dangerous, complex world. Clinton’s “every part of the job” line is also meant to hint that Sanders’ focus on Wall Street and inequality is too narrow.

* DEMOCRATS WRINGING HANDS ABOUT HILLARY: The Associated Press talks to a lot of Democratic donors and establishment types, and finds that they are wringing their hands about Clinton’s failure to stop Sanders:

While most believe Clinton will still capture the nomination, some say she is failing to respond effectively to Sanders, fueling both his primary rise and strengthening the Republican argument against her. Others say she got too late a start going after Sanders and is still not hitting him enough….some Democrats say she needs a better response to his critique of her ties to Wall Street, which they argue reinforces months of Republican attacks on her character.

As I keep telling you, if they weren’t freaking out, they wouldn’t be Democrats.

* KRUGMAN DINGS SANDERS’S THEORY OF CHANGE: Paul Krugman opens fire on the big promises Sanders is making about how mobilization can achieve major, transformational change, looking at the Obama presidency to show Sanders is wrong:

His achievements have depended at every stage on accepting half loaves as being better than none: health reform that leaves the system largely private, financial reform that seriously restricts Wall Street’s abuses without fully breaking its power, higher taxes on the rich but no full-scale assault on inequality….Mr. Sanders is the heir to candidate Obama, but Mrs. Clinton is the heir to President Obama.

Indeed, Sanders is arguing explicitly that the change Obama achieved is small beer compared to the scale of the challenges we face, and he’s suggesting that he will somehow achieve a popular mobilization much grander and more transformational than the one Obama ever achieved.

* AND IS TRUMP THE FAVORITE FOR THE GOP NOMINATION? The Fix crew makes the case:

He continues to hone his pitch on the stump and has clearly thrown Cruz off with the eligibility attack….Trump has pulled back into a tie with Cruz in Iowa, has extended his lead over the rest of the field in New Hampshire and leads in virtually every state that follows those two. If he wins Iowa and New Hampshire, look out: He’ll almost certainly be the Republican standard-bearer.

Six months ago, who would have said that this scenario can no longer be dismissed as implausible?