It’s Super Tuesday in America, and right now a bunch of people in (mostly Southern) states are heading off to vote for their preferred candidate for the presidency. On the Republican side, the polls show that in most states, with the possible exceptions of Texas and Minnesota, a strong plurality of voters will be supporting squinty fascist tangerine nightmare Donald Trump. That’s rough news for the non-Trump Republican candidates, who, at this impossibly late hour, still can’t figure out how they’re going to attack the guy who’s beating them up at the polls.
Over the past five days or so we’ve seen Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio frenetically zigzag from one anti-Trump narrative to the next, portraying him at various points as a coward, a weakling, a crook, a pants-wetter with small genitalia, a vain celebrity, a tiny-fingered buffoon, a liar, a con artist, and a bigot. And while most if not all of those attacks are true, the effect firing them off all at once robs them of any sort of consistent message. Rather than conditioning voters to think about Trump in a specific way, they look like they’re grasping for anything they can get their hands on to hurl it at the guy who’s winning. The messages they want to stick end up getting lost in the stuff no one cares about.
The latest shiny trinket to divert their attention came courtesy of Buzzfeed, which reported on Monday that The New York Times editorial board has an off-the-record tape and transcript of Trump perhaps waffling a bit on his draconian anti-immigrant policies:
Sources familiar with the recording and transcript — which have reached near-mythical status at the Times — tell me that the second sentence is a bit more than speculation. It reflects, instead, something Trump said about the flexibility of his hardline anti-immigration stance.
A secret tape! Intrigue and conspiracy! Per Buzzfeed, the Times says it can’t release these tapes and transcripts without Donald Trump’s approval. And so, naturally, both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio rushed to put out statements demanding that Trump approve the release of the secret Times tapes and show the Republican electorate what he really believes on immigration.
It’s always fun when you arrive at the “last-minute bombshell” stage of an election. I don’t claim to know what is allegedly contained within the “near-mythical” Trump transcripts but I’m dubious that they’d do him any real harm at this point. Trump easily inhabits this strange space in which he’s both the strongest, toughest, most hard-ass candidate you’ve ever seen, and also the consummate deal-maker who knows how to be flexible and will get along with everyone. Also, the "Trump isn't sufficiently conservative" flavor of attacks have not slowed him down appreciably yet, so I'm not confident this one will either. And while the “secret tape” aspect of it adds a whiff of scandal, but Trump’s not likely to agree to the demands of candidates who are losing to him, so unless the Times just up and leaks the tapes outright, don’t expect to hear them any time soon.
What’s more interesting, in my opinion, is how Rubio and Cruz reacted to this news. They attacked him because that’s what they have to do to stop him and they’ll take whatever they can get, but the crux of their attack is that Trump is potentially too moderate on immigration to be an acceptable Republican candidate. “His entire campaign is centered on expanding and enforcing our immigration laws,” Cruz’s campaign observed, “and now we find out it’s possible he doesn’t mean a word of it and is just using it for ‘strategic purposes.’” They’re attacking Trump from the right on immigration, arguing that the guy who wants to build a 48-foot border wall and deport every undocumented immigrant in country is probably a squish.
If you’re wondering why Republicans continue to have massive difficulties cutting into the Democrats’ advantage among Latino voters, stuff like this helps explain it. At every conceivable juncture, they find some way to shift immigration politics further and further to the right as they scrape and brawl for the shrinking percentage of white voters in the electorate. Both Cruz and Rubio have spent the campaign inching closer towards the hardline extremism of Donald Trump’s position, and if by some chance either one emerges on the other side of the primaries as the Republican nominee, they’ll have a long trail of hard-to-explain-away immigration positions dogging them in the general election.