Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) has taken a lot of heat lately on his immigration and national security positions. As someone rising in the polls and arguably the favorite in Iowa if Ben Carson sinks, Cruz should not find this surprising. Top candidates get scrutiny from the media and from their opponents, and Cruz is a particularly inviting target. In Cruz’s case, the scrutiny threatens to unravel a carefully woven narrative he has painted himself. In his self-portrait, he is the lonely, resolute conservative hero raging against Republicans who lack his fortitude.
With Cruz, both on immigration and national security, the problem is the same: While he talks a good game now, his track record and actual policy positions are not nearly as resolute as he would like the right wing to believe.
Time magazine had one of many reports clarifying his immigration posturing:
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz declined to close the door to a potential pathway to legal status for the 11 million people in the U.S. illegally Friday, saying he wouldn’t elaborate on his plans for them until after the border is secure.
Seeking to carve out a space between real estate mogul Donald Trump, who is calling for the forcible deportation of those in the U.S. illegally, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who co-authored the Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform bill that included a pathway to citizenship, Cruz would not explicitly rule out a pathway to legal status for the undocumented.
That, plus his previous support for a huge increase in H1B visas, stymied him as he tried to launch an attack on Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who was a co-author and major mover on the Gang of 8 immigration bill that passed the Senate overwhelmingly. On one level, Rubio’s team is simply pointing out that if anti-immigration types want the real deal, Cruz is not the one. Rubio, of course, benefits if Cruz cannot capture the anti-immigration segment of the electorate to whom Donald Trump panders. On another level, however, what is at stake is a larger argument about Cruz’s character. Essentially. the argument goes: He is not a hard-liner; he’s an opportunist whose positions are no different, and in some cases worse, than those of other Republicans.
On immigration, for example, the entire anti-“amnesty” crusade is a canard unless, like Trump, you want to round people up and kick them out. Otherwise, you are exactly where other candidates are — fix the border, reform legal immigration and then regularize the 11 million here. Cruz spends his time excoriating other Republicans for squishiness, but when you get down to it, he’s exactly where they are — unwilling to undertake a massive, expensive, intrusive deportation program. In other words, he’s not an anti-immigration extremist; he’s just posturing as one.
The same is true on national security. Cruz is anxious to pick fights with the president and to make sure everyone knows that he defines our enemy as Islamic fundamentalism. But wait. Every Republican in the field says that, even Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Cruz’s actual positions and voting record are a different matter, and those are coming back to haunt him. Whether it was his work to curtail the metadata program or opposition to insertion of any ground forces in the fight against the Islamic State, he is to the left of most Republicans and 60 percent of voters who know air power alone is never going to win the war. Strip away the rhetoric and he’s slightly to Hillary Clinton’s left. In place of a tough position and consistent record, he, like Trump, is banging the drum on anti-immigration fervor.
Last week Jeb Bush, Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie all pointed out Cruz’s mediocre record, often lumping Cruz in with libertarian and neo-isolationist Rand Paul. On Sunday, Rubio hit that theme again. “There are members of the Republican party, that includes Senator Cruz and Senator Paul, who have argued that somehow the government is out there spying on everybody, so we need to gut these programs,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “That isn’t true.” Christie, on CNN’s “State of the Union,” likewise observed, “I said it was wrong at the time, and it’s now been proven to have been wrong, when we cut back on the NSA’s metadata collection program and have been destroying the morale of our intelligence officers. We need to rebuild that program. We need to rebuild the morale of our intelligence [community].”
Cruz, in their telling, has not understood the jihadist threat, and the role of Syria specifically, any better than Clinton. In fact, she at least pushed for action early on while Cruz insisted we had no interest there. At bottom, the accusation is that he is a poser, putting finger to the wind as he tries to tell the right wing whatever it is this segment of voters wants to hear at any moment.
The charge of opportunism and inconsistency is a common one in politics, but for Cruz it is a deadly one. He has no record to speak of, so he runs almost entirely on the premise he has been “standing up and fighting.” If he’s actually been posing as a immigration hard-liner and a hawk, but not adopting the policies and positions to match his overheated rhetoric, he becomes just a freshman senator with a lot of fancy rhetoric, and an unctuous one at that.
Remember, Cruz led the shutdown, claiming only that he wanted to repeal Obamacare. In fact, his policy position was no different from that of any other Republican, many of whom have voted again and again to repeal it. Using a self-aggrandizing stunt (which he eventually confessed had no endgame) was his way of trying to distinguish himself. The shutdown did not show he cared about repealing Obamacare more than anyone else; it was all about self-promotion. His current strutting on immigration and Islamic terrorism is more of the same.
In sum, Cruz’s positions on immigration and repealing Obamacare are no more conservative than those of his top opponents. His foreign policy stances are more conservative than Rand Paul’s but no one else’s. Voters, he hopes, won’t notice because he is screaming so loudly and attacking fellow conservatives with such conviction.
Look behind the curtain and voters may figure Cruz’s rhetoric is empty. In that case, the rationale for Cruz’s candidacy disappears. He’s sure not running on executive experience, competence, his ability to get along with others, or innovative policy. No wonder his opponents are making the case his rhetoric is a ruse. It is not a bad strategy for them to adopt because it has the benefit of being largely true.