Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, left, answers a question as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., center, listens and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, right, looks on during a Republican presidential primary debate, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) (AP)

Debate night immigration free-for-all: Four GOP candidates burn each other down arguing over "amnesty"

Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz fight over immigration and get embarrassed by their lowly 2016 rivals


Simon Maloy
January 29, 2016 3:58PM (UTC)

I’m happy for Jeb Bush. He’s come to terms with reality as it exists and has embraced his destiny. Jeb knows he’s probably not going to be president. He knows that the only reason he’s still in the race is the goodwill and loyalty he’s borrowed from his father and his brother, which keeps the money flowing despite his demonstrable lack of achievement. But that doesn’t mean he’s without purpose. Jeb Bush has a role to play yet. He must destroy Marco Rubio.

Jeb is an imperfect vessel for this job, in that he’s a stammering mess of an attack dog who can barely stutter through his canned jabs let alone pitch barbs on the fly. But at Thursday night’s debate, he finally got his chance to rough up his upstart former protégé on immigration, and he did it in the most diabolical way possible: he turned Rubio into Jeb Bush.

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Going into Thursday night, Rubio had largely gotten a pass from debate moderators on his immigration record. The Florida senator’s big weakness has always been his key role in passing the Senate’s 2013 comprehensive immigration reform legislation, which he quickly abandoned once it became clear that the bill would alienate conservatives and threaten his viability as a presidential candidate. But at Thursday night’s Fox debate, Rubio finally got caught as the network played clips of Senate candidate Rubio from 2010 in which he promised to oppose “amnesty,” earned paths to citizenship, and other stuff that was included in the 2013 bill he passed. Rubio denied any contradiction or any change in position, and that’s when Jeb pounced.

Well, “pounced” is the wrong word. Jeb stumbled over his verbiage and dribbled out a lame “cut and run” swipe at Rubio for abandoning the legislation, which Jeb also supported. Then Jeb started talking about an immigration book that he wrote, and it seemed like he’d once again fumbled a pristine opportunity to take on Rubio. But it turned out to be a clever trap. Or an accidental trap. Either way, Rubio fell right into it:

RUBIO: It's interesting that Jeb mentions the book. That's the book where you changed your position on immigration because you used to support a path to citizenship.

BUSH: So did you.

(LAUGHTER)

RUBIO: Well, but you changed the -- in the book...

BUSH: Yeah. So did you, Marco.

(APPLAUSE)

Oh, how sweet that must have been for poor, hapless Jeb. What beautiful comeuppance for the rhetorical defenestration Rubio put him through at the CNBC debate last October. Jeb finally got him, and he discovered his secret weapon for attacking his rivals: liken them to Jeb Bush.

From there the debate spilled into a broader free-for-all on immigration, as the moderators gave Ted Cruz the same treatment they’d given Rubio, playing clips of Cruz in which he sounded like he supported some form of legal status for undocumented immigrants. Cruz denied having done any such thing and recruited hardline immigration opponent Sen. Jeff Sessions to support his case. That prompted Rand Paul – Rand Paul! – to jump in and chastise Cruz for presenting himself as the paragon of conservative purity when no one is clean, including Rand Paul. “It's a falseness, and that's an authenticity problem,” Paul said, “that everybody he knows is not as perfect as him because we're all for amnesty. I was for legalization. I think, frankly, if you have border security, you can have legalization. So was Ted, but now he says it wasn't so. That's not true.”

Because he doesn’t have to worry about Paul, Cruz immediately pivoted to attacking “my friend Senator Rubio” who “chose to stand with Barack Obama and Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer and support amnesty.” That led Rubio to fire off the most pointed attack of the night, saying Cruz’s campaign is built on a lie and alleging that Cruz is “willing to say or do anything in order to get votes” – a line that, interestingly, drew a round of boos from the crowd. Cruz capped the whole thing off by saying that while he and Rubio both ran for office pledging to halt “amnesty,” Cruz was the only one who’d actually done it.

What’s interesting about this four-way fight over immigration is that Rubio and, to a lesser extent, Cruz lost because they had something to lose. They’re both telling conveniently distorted tales to obscure the blemishes in their immigration records, and they won’t cop to the truth because they think it might cost them support ahead of the Iowa caucuses. The two candidates who came out of the fight looking good were the ones who don’t stand much of a chance at the nomination: Jeb Bush and Rand Paul. They made Cruz and Rubio look foolish by acknowledging their own deviations from conservative orthodoxy on immigration and owning them instead of posturing as hardliners. Both Jeb and Rand looked at Rubio and Cruz and said “you know what, you’re not that different from us.” And that’s not what Rubio and Cruz want voters to believe.

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Check out our GOP debate recap here:
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Simon Maloy

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