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Republican elites are trying desperately to stop Ted Cruz

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

This week has seen a plethora of takes (Yglesias/Klein/Beutler/Chait/Newell) from left-of-center analysts suggesting that fear of Donald Trump may drive the GOP establishment into the arms of Ted Cruz. But in the wake of Tuesday's debate, it appears that the establishment isn't listening. Instead, on two key flashpoints between Cruz and Marco Rubio — immigration reform and democracy promotion — they are lining up to attack Cruz.

In the context of the duel between two freshman senators, that makes a lot of sense. Cruz is strongly disliked by the leaders of his party, and he's paying the price for that. But in terms of the broader contours of the race, it's a risky strategy. After all, neither Cruz nor Rubio is currently leading in the polls. Going all in on anti-Cruz attacks simply risks further bolstering the current frontrunner — Donald Trump, a man whose nomination represents an absolute worst-case scenario for the establishment.

Fox News's Brett Baier nails Cruz on immigration

Rubio famously supported a bipartisan immigration reform bill that would have established a "path to citizenship" for most unauthorized immigrants who've been living in the United States. During the debate, Rubio attempted to parry Cruz's attacks on this point by noting that during the Senate process Cruz had supported an amendment that would have granted a form of legal resident status — though not a path to citizenship — to unauthorized migrants. Cruz now maintains that this was a false flag operation designed to undermine the coalition for the bill by driving a wedge between moderate reformers and the immigrant rights activist community.

But Wednesday night on Fox News, Brett Baier delivered footage of Cruz speaking about his amendment on the Judiciary Committee that seems to support Rubio's interpretation. Cruz specifically insists that he does not want immigration reform to fail, and he says that he wants to bring immigrants "out of the shadows" — a talking point that is closely associated with the pro-reform movement.

On its own terms, the footage isn't so devastating to Cruz. The fact of the matter is that Rubio was part of the Gang of Eight that wrote the bill and strongly supported its passage while Cruz strongly opposed it.

But many conservative elites seem to be taking the opportunity to raise fundamental questions about Cruz. I found the clip via the Twitter feed of National Review executive editor Reihan Salam, for example, who particularly highlighted a moment during the exchange when Baier questions Cruz's basic honesty.

Other conservative pundits likewise are highlighting the exchange as a significant bad moment for Cruz.

In a related move, Sen. John McCain, a longtime proponent of immigration reform, spoke angrily to the press about the idea that Cruz's current immigration-skeptical rhetoric is at odds with past support for expanding the H-1B visa program.

AEI goes after Cruz on democracy promotion

Another issue on which Cruz (joined by Rand Paul) disagreed with Marco Rubio and the other establishment-friendly candidates was democracy promotion. Cruz argued that the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq, the Obama administration's intervention in Libya, and Obama's gentler diplomatic push against Egypt's Hosni Mubarak all reflected a mistaken injection of naive idealism into a rough corner of the world. Cruz would rather see the United States embrace whatever allies we can find against Islamic radicalism, potentially even including Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

The American Enterprise Institute's Danielle Pletka delivered a pointed smackdown of this idea that was rapidly echoed by AEI colleagues who don't normally work on national security issues.

A risky strategy

It's not especially surprising to see the Republican establishment stand up for regime change as a foreign policy doctrine. Cruz's view is arguably a more authentic interpretation of the Ronald Reagan approach to foreign policy (you can think of it as a 21st-century update of Jeane Kirkpatrick's "Democracies and Double Standards"), but Rubio's is the current accepted canon.

But hitting Cruz as soft on immigration is a risky strategy for GOP elites.

If you view the race as a two-man contest between Cruz and Rubio, then blurring the difference between the two on immigration clearly helps Rubio. And since Republican elites hate Cruz, that makes a lot of sense. But it isn't a two-man race. There's also Donald Trump. And trying to help Rubio by suggesting that Cruz is weak on immigration could simply end up boosting the notion that Trump is the only viable choice for anti-immigration voters — which could lead to the disaster scenario of Trump as the nominee. The working assumption of conservative elites seems to be that Trump will inevitably fade, but at this point that doesn't amount to much more than wishful thinking.