Ted Cruz's big mouth saves the day: Just as Democrats take a hit, along comes a hero

Democrats were squabbling over Obama's immigration fumble -- then Ted Cruz dragged the spotlight back to himself

By Simon Maloy

Published September 11, 2014 7:59PM (EDT)

Ted Cruz, Barack Obama                    (AP/Tony Gutierrez/Jacquelyn Martin//Photo montage by Salon)
Ted Cruz, Barack Obama (AP/Tony Gutierrez/Jacquelyn Martin//Photo montage by Salon)

One of the overlooked aspects of President Obama’s decision to delay taking executive action on deportations is the degree to which it helped out Republicans. The emerging conventional wisdom is that by punting on the issue, Obama did a favor to Democrats running in red states who were afraid that a renewed focus on immigration would anger conservatives and boost turnout for their Republican opponents. But, as anyone who’s been paying attention for the last nine years can tell you, immigration debates tend to be very thorny issues for Republicans as well.

Before Obama made his announcement, Republican leaders in Congress were very concerned that the hard-right faction of the House GOP would mount a rebellion if the party didn’t use the upcoming debate over government funding to try and block Obama on immigration. “If Obama does move forward with an executive action,” Rep. Steve King told the Washington Post, “many House Republicans will be unwilling to extend funding for the government that is set to expire at the end of September.” The threat of a government shutdown before the midterms suddenly looked less far-fetched.

But then Obama put off action until after the midterms, and Republican leaders unclenched a bit. They still have to worry about the unruly members of their own party acting like self-destructive fools, but at least immigration was off the table and they could focus on quickly and quietly funding the government.

And then Ted Cruz entered the fray. The junior senator from Texas once again assumed his unofficial role as spoiler to House Speaker John Boehner and met with House conservatives to strategize ways to turn the short session of Congress into a painful political sideshow. And that meant, of course, a fight over immigration that Republican leaders had hoped to avoid.

“I think we should use any and all means necessary to prevent the president from illegally granting amnesty,” Cruz said this week. “That certainly, I think, would be appropriate to include in the [continuing resolution], but I think we should use every – every – tool at our disposal.” Specifically, Cruz wanted the Senate to take up a bill the House GOP passed just before the August recess that would kill the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which shields younger undocumented immigrants from deportation. That bill only came up because Boehner needed to gain conservative support for a separate bill to deal with the crisis caused by thousands of undocumented immigrant children crossing our southern border. “The House of Representatives has stood up and led,” Cruz said. “Let senators go on record whether or not they support amnesty.”

So, just as the Democrats were taking heat for Obama’s broken promise on immigration, Cruz started demanding that more immigrants be put under threat of deportation (in line with the House bill that passed only because Boehner needed to mollify the nativists) and that it would be reasonable to tie this demand to continued funding of the government.

This is something of a Cruz specialty. Whenever the Democrats find themselves in a politically awkward position on immigration, Cruz can be counted on to swoop in and put the spotlight right back on himself and the GOP.

When the controversy over the crush of immigrant minors at the border was at its height this summer, Democrats were paralyzed by internal divisions and arguing among themselves over how to address it. But then Cruz popped up and started demanding that legislation to address the border crisis include language to undo DACA, making himself a lightning rod for anti-immigrant sentiment. And now he’s back again, pulling the same trick at the exact moment that Democrats desperately need a foil on immigration.

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The idea of tying language to end DACA to the continuing resolution raises the specter of a government shutdown – something Cruz insists he doesn’t want, even though he thinks the last one he caused was a great gift to his party.

But by floating the idea, he gave Democrats an opening to once again hammer Cruz for playing chicken with the federal government. “They have every right to do whatever they want legislatively,” Harry Reid said on Tuesday. “If they want to be the lead team of shutting down the government, that’s what they’re going to have to do.” Sen. Dick Durbin laid into Cruz on the Senate floor, noting that there are still young immigrants eligible for DACA protections who haven’t applied, and that Cruz is “glorying in the possibility of deporting these children.”

Cruz, of course, is happy to be denounced – antagonizing the left on hot-button issues is basically all he does as a senator. But as we’ve seen so many times before, Cruz’s agenda and the Republican leadership’s agenda are not always in sync. And Cruz’s willingness to offer himself as a ready-made villain for the Democrats often serves to undermine his own party’s political agenda.

Simon Maloy

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