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Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz's long-awaited immigration showdown, explained

The most important exchange in the GOP debate had nothing to do with Donald Trump.

Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz at the December 15 debate in Las Vegas.
Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz at the December 15 debate in Las Vegas.
Justin Sullivan/Getty

An hour and a half into the fifth debate of the 2016 Republican presidential primary, America — or at least that very small sliver of America that really cares about policy differences between presidential candidates — got the fight it had been anticipating for months: Ted Cruz taking on Marco Rubio on immigration.

It was inevitably going to happen at some point. Cruz and Rubio are arguably the two most serious candidates in the field — which is to say, of the candidates who actually have policy arguments during presidential debates, they're the two doing best in the polls. And while they agree with each other on many issues, and the distinctions between them on others (like intervention in Syria) are nuanced, immigration is the issue where Rubio's record distinguishes him from Cruz and from a lot of Republican primary voters.

Rubio's immigration record is a legitimate weak spot for him with conservatives, and simply by picking the fight and staying focused, unlike other candidates who've tried similar attacks, Cruz "won" the exchange. But underneath the argument about Marco Rubio and his support for "amnesty" — the one most viewers saw and will remember — was an argument about Ted Cruz's immigration position and whether he also supports some kind of legalization.

The latter argument ended inconclusively. But it's going to continue to be relevant to many establishment Republicans and business types — especially if Cruz ends up winning the nomination and gets the chance to run to the center.

This is the fight everyone has been waiting to see from the debates

Donald Trump might be leading the polls — just as he's done since July. But many political insiders and observers still believe Cruz and Rubio are the two candidates most likely to actually win the nomination when this is all over. And while, for a time, this looked like foolish wishful thinking in the face of the Trump juggernaut, both candidates — especially Cruz — are picking up in the polls. Cruz is currently in first place in Iowa, according to many pollsters. Rubio's polling is less strong, and his path to victory is less clear, but he's still the strongest "establishment" candidate by far.

But why does freshman senator Rubio get tagged as "establishment" while freshman senator Cruz is a conservative "outsider"? Immigration.

Cruz Rubio

(CNBC)

Marco Rubio was one of the eight original co-sponsors of the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the Senate, also known as the Gang of Eight. That group included four Democrats (including Republican bête noire and likely next Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer) and three other Republicans (including known immigration apostates John McCain and Lindsey Graham).

The bill famously included a "path to citizenship" for unauthorized immigrants currently living in the US. As many Republican primary voters understood it, this was amnesty. Ted Cruz vociferously opposed the bill and voted against it both in the Senate Judiciary Committee and on the Senate floor. Marco Rubio even more vociferously supported it.

Rubio was deliberately picking a fight within his own party. He even did a media tour of conservative talk radio to defend the bill, because he understood how the base would feel about it.

Marco Rubio immigration reporters

Marco Rubio talks to reporters about immigration in 2013. (Douglas Graham/CQ-Roll Call via Getty)

The upside was huge. Pass comprehensive immigration reform, and Republicans could begin rebuilding their relationship with one of the nation's fastest-growing voter blocs — with Rubio himself at the lead. But so was the downside: Rubio was outing himself as a supporter of a policy that much of his party's base (and its media ecosystem) wasn't just opposed to, but passionately opposed to.

Rubio's plan backfired: He got all of the downside and none of the upside. He bailed on his own bill shortly after it passed the Senate — helping cement the idea that it was politically toxic for House Republicans. But it was too late for him to save his own reputation. He had permanently identified himself in the minds of conservatives with an "amnesty" bill — one that, predictably, got even less popular among Republican primary voters when there were no longer prominent Republican elected officials supporting it. By doing that, he'd created an easy opening for another would-be presidential candidate — say, another freshman senator with a Hispanic surname who came to office in a Tea Party surge — to distinguish himself as the true conservative alternative.

Rubio's current policy is an attempt to delay his disagreement with conservatives — but that ends up reinforcing the disagreement in principle

For the past two and a half years, Rubio has been espousing a sort of conversion narrative on immigration: In 2013, he didn't understand just how little Americans trusted the federal government to secure the border, and now that he understands that, he's changed his mind. That's what he's said since the summer of 2013, and that's what he told Dana Bash when she initially asked him about his support for the 2013 Senate bill last night:

BASH: So let's talk about immigration. Senator Rubio. You co-authored a bill that supported a path to citizenship to immigrants. Do you still support that path to citizenship?

RUBIO: My family are immigrants. My wife's family are immigrants. All of my neighbors are immigrants. I see every aspect of this problem. The good, the bad, and the ugly. In 2013 we learned that the American people don't trust the federal government to enforce immigration laws and we will not be able to do anything on immigration until we prove to the American people that immigration is under control.

Republicans have heard that before — namely from Sen. John McCain, who said something very similar in the 2008 primaries about his own immigration reform bill. And since after losing the 2008 election McCain went right back to supporting legalization, conservatives had reason for distrust.

Rubio, however, has taken the conversion narrative one step further — he's made it the central principle of his current immigration proposal, which is essentially, Let's do the things that all Republicans agree on, and then we can deal with the rest after that. This looks a lot like the 2013 Senate bill in terms of what Rubio wants to do: more border agents and fencing, mandatory employment verification for all workers, and "modernizing" the legal immigration system (including an expansion of high-skilled immigration). But instead of those things happening while unauthorized immigrants are being legalized, they'd be prerequisites.

There are big unanswered questions with Rubio's policy (similar to those raised by Jeb Bush's similar proposal this summer). But what matters to many conservatives is what Bash pushed Rubio on in a follow-up question: whether his policy means unauthorized immigrants would ultimately get legalized. And the answer to that is yes.

BASH: You described a long path but does it end at citizenship?

RUBIO: I am personally open after all that has happened and after ten years in probationary status, I am open to a green card. You can't begin that process until you prove to people not just pass a law that says you will bring illegal immigration you should control you have to prove it is working. That is the lesson of 2013. And it is more true today, after a migratory crisis with migrants coming over after all the executive orders, more than ever we need to prove that illegal immigration is you should control.

Just by picking the fight — and not screwing up — Cruz won with GOP voters

One big reason many Republican insiders have been impressed by Rubio so far is his debate performance. And one big reason people have been impressed by his debate performance, frankly, is that he's managed to fend off attacks from other candidates on immigration even though everyone in the party knows it's his weak spot.

Marco Rubio is very good at debating policy, and he knows immigration policy extremely well. Ultimately, that doesn't matter in a presidential debate — when two candidates argue with each other about a policy disagreement and voters agree with one of the candidates, it doesn't much matter whether the other one has more facts at his disposal. But Rubio's been able to use his knowledge to deflect and distract his opponents from the fundamental problem of the 2013 bill. He was able to do this with Donald Trump in the first debate, and then again in the third debate.

This is what Rubio tried to do when Bash asked the question last night — he turned the subject to his current position, which he could defend on the merits. Unfortunately for Rubio, he is not, in fact, the only Republican good at debating.

Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz is literally a champion debater. But Cruz didn't launch a frontal attack on Rubio on immigration in the first four debates. Cruz's strategy in the primaries has generally been to bide his time and let super-outsiders like Trump and Ben Carson dominate the headlines, on the assumption that he'll take their support when they collapse. (That appears to be what's happening with Carson, at least.) Now that he's surging in the polls, especially in Iowa, he saw his moment.

Cruz used Rubio's tendency to focus on the details against him. He turned attention to the 2013 bill's refugee provisions, leading Rubio to sputter that "in 2013 we had never faced a crisis like the Syrian refugee crisis now" — reinforcing Cruz's message that the 2013 bill wouldn't have kept America safe from 2015's threats.

But ultimately, Cruz drew his authority from the fact that as a member of the Judiciary Committee and then again on the Senate floor, he opposed Rubio's bill. That was the ultimate message of the exchange for conservative viewers: In 2013, "a time for choosing" (Cruz paraphrasing Reagan), Rubio supported a bill that would have legalized unauthorized immigrants, and Ted Cruz didn't. Rubio was the arsonist, and Cruz was the firefighter.

Does Ted Cruz secretly support legalization?

For most casual viewers — including primary voters — this was basically the end of the argument. Cruz, Rubio, CNN moderators, and Carly Fiorina (somehow) all started talking over each other, and only a very dedicated listener would have caught the flow of conversation.

But many "establishment" Republicans, including donors, were probably very dedicated listeners. Because it turns out that while voters may care more about Rubio's immigration position, political elites are very interested in Cruz's.

Marco Rubio and his campaign have been pushing the idea — one Rubio repeated last night — that the two candidates' positions on immigration are basically the same. As Rubio said: "You support legalizing people who are in this country illegally," too.

The Rubio campaign's evidence for this is a single amendment that Ted Cruz filed in 2013. (Bloomberg's Sahil Kapur has the backstory of the amendment.) But more importantly, Ted Cruz had never categorically disavowed legalization.

So just as the CNN moderators latched onto the "legalization or no?" question with Rubio, now they did so with Cruz. His response sure sounded categorical: "I have never supported legalization and do not intend to support legalization." But Team Rubio — and others who believe that Cruz is deliberately keeping his options open — seized on that "do not intend" as something other than an absolute no.

The reason this theory matters is that it's a way for Republicans who support legalization (or immigration reform more broadly) to reconcile themselves to the idea of a Cruz candidacy, as he increasingly looks like the less-crazy alternative to Donald Trump. It reinforces the idea that because Ted Cruz is a smart man — as everyone agrees he is — he is just pretending to be a hardcore conservative to sneak past the base in the primaries. In reality, they believe, he supports pragmatic, pro-business policies like (as they see it) comprehensive immigration reform — and will out himself as such once he's running in a general election campaign.

But pro-business Republicans have a history of deluding themselves about this. In 2011, many pro-business Republicans believed that Mitt Romney, who was, after all, a businessman like them, must secretly support comprehensive immigration reform. They turned out to be wrong, or at least not right enough to matter — whatever Romney felt in his heart, he ended up foreclosing his options to run to the center by endorsing "self-deportation." But with Cruz finally having nailed Rubio to the wall on immigration, it might be more appealing for Republican elites to persuade themselves that Cruz isn't really as aligned with anti-legalization conservatives as he seems.