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The real reason Ted Cruz scares GOP elites — and why they might fall in line anyway

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When Ted Cruz finally picked a fight with Marco Rubio over immigration in the December Republican primary debate, it was supposed to force Rubio into days of explaining his immigration position to the press, defending himself against charges of flip-flopping, and trying desperately to protect his cred with Republican primary voters.

That's almost what happened — not to Rubio, but to Cruz himself.

It turns out that while Marco Rubio's position on immigration is an obvious apostasy to a substantial segment of the GOP base, Ted Cruz's immigration record requires a little explanation.

The media turned this into a flip-flop story, because flip-flop stories are easy to understand: "Politician A said X thing two years ago, and now he says not-X, how on earth do we know what he really believes?" But it turns out that not every flip-flop story matters equally to voters. And the interesting thing Cruz's immigration record reveals isn't what's in Cruz's heart: It's who holds power in the Republican Party.

The "did Ted Cruz flip-flop?" debate, explained

To understand the Ted Cruz "flip-flop," you have to go back to a single amendment Cruz filed in 2013 to the "Gang of Eight" comprehensive immigration reform bill.

Some opponents of the Gang of Eight bill filed dozens of amendments, including Sen. Jeff Sessions (who is being actively courted by both Cruz and Republican frontrunner Donald Trump), but Cruz only proposed five. And all of them were very broad. The broadest — and the one currently under dispute — was an amendment that simply decreed that "nothing" in the bill "shall construe" that any immigrant who got legal status under the bill would be allowed to obtain citizenship. The amendment failed, and Cruz voted against the bill in committee and then fought against it when it came to the floor — citing the rejection of his amendment as evidence that Democrats weren't serious about immigration reform.

Cruz's critics, including the Rubio campaign, explain the Cruz amendment this way: Cruz didn't want unauthorized immigrants to get citizenship, but he did want them to get some kind of legal status. So he proposed an amendment that would do just that. And some of Cruz's comments at the time certainly make it sound like he supported the idea: He expressed hope that reasonable members of both parties could come together in agreement.

Cruz and his supporters, meanwhile, explain the amendment this way: Cruz knew that the amendment would fail. While not every member of the Gang of Eight was on the committee (Rubio, for example, wasn't), the gang had enough committee votes to kill any amendment they didn't like — and it was broadly known that the Democrats in the Gang of Eight believed citizenship was core to the bill. So when Cruz said he hoped "reasonable people" could agree on the amendment, he already knew he was setting up the Democrats (and the Gang of Eight Republicans) to look unreasonable.

What's the truth? Did Cruz really want his amendment to pass or not? Personally, when I first read Cruz's amendment the night he introduced it, my first reaction was that it was laughably vague — it didn't bother to explain how the bill was supposed to change so that it would not be "construed" to provide this thing it obviously provided. If Cruz really wanted the bill to legalize unauthorized immigrants without granting them citizenship, he didn't put a ton of time into writing down how that would work.

The biggest takeaway from looking at what Cruz said in 2013, though, is that he did in fact sound a lot like Marco Rubio sounds today — not in terms of his position, but by being strategically vague because he knew he was talking to people who disagreed with him. In 2015, Rubio is hammering hard on the immigration positions the party agrees on: border security and "fixing" legal immigration (though voters and donors disagree strenuously as to what a fix would be). Likewise, Cruz in 2013, by focusing on what reasonable people could agree on, downplayed the differences that might arise between policy wonks listening to Senate floor remarks or speeches at Princeton and the Republican base.

In the immediate aftermath of the debate, though, the actual content of the fight wasn't as important to the Republican base as the fact that Cruz was reminding them of Rubio's immigration record. But after Rubio mentioned Cruz's own immigration record in 2013, political reporters were reminded that Cruz's record wasn't quite as consistent as he'd made it out to be, and started asking Cruz about it in follow-up interviews. So for the people who were consuming political media in the couple of days after the debate, the real story became about Cruz.

It's impossible for a Republican candidate not to piss off either voters or donors on immigration

There are a lot of issues that the Republican primary electorate and the Republican donor class disagree on: Social Security, Medicare, starting foreign wars, and same-sex marriage among them.

On most of these issues, one group simply cares a lot more than the other. On immigration, on the other hand, the conflict is active and intense. Republican elites think immigration reform needs to pass to save both the American economy and the Republican Party. The Republican base believes immigration needs to be more tightly enforced and restricted to save the American people.

Political observers understand that this dynamic exists, and they watch for it to play out in a primary election. I pointed out way back in January that the only way for Republican candidates to thread the needle was to avoid committing to any specific policy positions on immigration throughout 2015 — something that I also pointed out the Republican base would find unacceptable and would prevent from happening.

Marco Rubio supported a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013, including a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants in the US. It was anathema to the conservative base at the time — and is widely understood to be his biggest problem in winning over the base now.

Conversely, though, Rubio's immigration stance is a lot of what makes him so appealing to some Republican strategists and donors. As policy, many "business Republicans" genuinely support immigration reform that expands legal immigration and legalizes unauthorized immigrants. And politically, many Republican elites are worried about the party's long-term viability in presidential elections, and see it as imperative that the GOP returns to its 2004-vintage performance levels with Latino voters — and they believe passing immigration reform is a necessary first step to doing that.

As David Frum points out in a long essay about the intra-GOP civil war, this political theory is a little bit self-serving — it's a way for pro-immigration Republicans to persuade themselves that Republican candidates need to agree with them to win elections:

[W]ithin hours of [Mitt] Romney’s defeat [in 2012], Republican donors, talkers, and officials converged on the maximally self-exculpating explanation. The problem had not been the plan to phase out Medicare for people younger than 55. Or the lack of ideas about how to raise wages. Or the commitment to ending health-insurance coverage for millions of working-age Americans. Or the anthems to wealth creation and entrepreneurship in a country increasingly skeptical of both. No, the problem was the one element of Romney’s message they had never liked anyway: immigration enforcement.

Rubio's immigration record is pretty straightforward: He supported comprehensive immigration reform in 2013, then abandoned it, and now supports something that involves most of the components of comprehensive immigration reform but changes the order in which they happen. This represents a shift to the right, for sure. But for elites, Rubio represents the possibility that they can regain control of the party in time for the general election. And a pro-immigration, elite-run party has, elites believe, a better chance in the general than it would with a candidate who isn't interested in appealing to the center.

What distinguishes Cruz from Rubio is that he appears uninterested in reassuring GOP elites that he cares about them

Cruz, meanwhile, has the trust of the base on immigration. He's made a big deal out of his opposition to the 2013 immigration bill and to "executive amnesty," and he's courted Sessions, the head of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee and the man who helped write Donald Trump's immigration platform. Furthermore, he's been a vocal proponent of the idea that the Republican Party can win general elections by appealing not to moderates, but to conservatives who don't turn out to vote. In other words, it's not just that he isn't listening to elites on immigration now; it's that his campaign strategy doesn't require him to listen to them in the future, either.

As analysts have pointed out, 2013 was a very different time on immigration. The Senate bill that Cruz opposed passed the Senate with 68 votes. A lot of Americans supported it, especially when President Obama's name wasn't on it. Cruz's strategic vagueness was designed so that if the bill did pass, he wouldn't be on the losing side of an intraparty fight the way Rubio was when the bill failed.

The measure of a candidate's position isn't in what he says when he's vague and losing; it's what he says when he's emboldened — or forced — to get specific. When Cruz was asked in the December debate whether he supported legalization, he was clear: He never had, and he "didn't intend to" do so in future. Whatever he felt in his heart, in that moment — and throughout this campaign — he felt most accountable to the Republican base he was trying to woo.

It's really not clear that the 2013 amendment debate mattered to anyone outside Washington. Holistically, as Byron York points out, conservative voters have every reason to distrust Marco Rubio on immigration, and there's no evidence that a "Rubio and Cruz are just the same!" argument would work. For whatever reason, the question of whether Cruz might have once left the door open to legalizing unauthorized immigrants simply doesn't appear to matter to primary voters.

One of the biggest open questions in the Republican presidential campaign going into 2016 is whether the establishment will accept Cruz. The controversy over Cruz's immigration record has illuminated that Cruz hasn't always been so dismissive of the establishment as his campaign suggests. It's also been a reminder that sometimes when a candidate says one thing to please voters and another one to please donors, it's the donors who end up getting fooled.

The GOP elite might end up having to come to Cruz, rather than vice versa

The problem here is Donald Trump. Trump has lasted way longer than he was expected to. He's a force that the party can't co-opt or ignore. Compared with this, Cruz — who, after all, is a current United States senator — stops looking like a dangerous outsider, and starts looking like someone who can work within the system that Republican elites understand. With Rubio's campaign oddly relying more on TV ads than actual campaigning and no other candidate rising from the pack, Cruz might be elites' only hope to stop Trump.

If this happens, Republican elites could choose to sit out the election. Or they could choose to fall in line. And there's plenty of evidence that the latter will happen. The Republican National Committee is already circulating memos to politicians about how to stand behind every potential Republican presidential nominee — up to and including Donald Trump. Parties are very good at forgetting internal disputes between the Iowa caucuses and Election Day.

One way people allow a candidate to win them over is by persuading themselves the candidate actually agrees with them about the issues. And Republican elites can be particularly susceptible to this when it comes to immigration. Frum is right that it was a little opportunistic for Republican elites to blame the part of Mitt Romney's platform they disagreed with most strongly for his loss. But plenty of Republicans had never taken that part of Romney's platform seriously to begin with. The notion that Romney was a relative moderate, and a businessman, led a lot of Republicans to understate or downplay his immigration position to portray it as closer to their own — or to assume that whatever Romney said on the trail, he'd ultimately show his true colors once in office.

This, too, can be magical thinking. It's the "smart people" argument. Wealthy people with advanced degrees from prestigious schools, like Romney or Cruz, tend to support immigration reform that expands legal immigration and legalizes unauthorized immigrants, even if they're conservative on some other issues. Romney and Cruz are smart people. Therefore, they must secretly support the "smart" position for immigration reform.

For Cruz, this argument takes on an added dimension. If he's tailoring his message to his audience — if he's a typical politician — maybe he's not so alien to Republican elites as his current campaign strategy implies. Maybe he's someone they can work with after all. And it makes sense that he would be someone they could work with; he's a smart person.

It's certainly possible that Republican elites will never trust Cruz — just like the Republican base never really trusted John McCain or Mitt Romney. But if they do talk themselves into supporting Cruz, the fight over the 2013 immigration amendment offers a window into how those conversations are going to look.