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Immigration Debate Is Just Getting Started

Nearly every question of how a Republican politician’s stand will affect the 2016 presidential primaries must be qualified with “it depends who else runs.” And so it is with Jeb Bush’s comments on immigration. Although conservatives have more objections to Bush than on immigration, other issues–such as the Common Core, for example–just don’t have the visibility the immigration issue does. Nor do those other issues have the legislative and policy relevance of immigration: the Senate, after all, did pass an immigration reform bill.

Additionally, immigration arguably played a greater role than any other specific issue in sifting wheat from chaff in the 2012 Republican primaries. There were other factors, but it seems clear that Rick Perry was at least damaged by his comments on immigration–that if you don’t support in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrations “I don’t think you have a heart.” Bush’s comment–that such migration is “an act of love”–has been compared to Perry’s, and it’s also similar to a far better phrased version of the argument put forth by Newt Gingrich, who put it in terms of separating families. And we got a preview of how Bush’s comments might be countered in a 2016 version of those debates from Ted Cruz, in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper:

“We need to be a nation that welcomes and celebrates legal immigrants, people who follow the rules, and come here according to the law,” said Cruz in response.

“Rule of law matters. And if you look at any sovereign nation, securing your border is critically important,” said the freshman lawmaker.

“We need to solve the problem to secure the borders and then improve and streamline legal immigration so people can come to America consistent with the rule of law,” said Cruz.

Cruz’s response is not particularly controversial, though it’s clear he’s less concerned about fixing America’s legal immigration system–which is an unholy mess–than about securing the border. Both are important: in the age of asymmetric warfare, it makes no sense to have an unsecured border; and the current restrictions and layers of red tape on immigration are artificially distorting the market for labor and creating a black market–as overregulation almost always does–to fill the demand.

More relevant to 2016 than this argument–which goes round and round, and round again–is what it indicates about the various actors involved. And it confirms the pattern we’ve seen from Ted Cruz on his strategy for the primary contest. Cruz has not taken to promoting major reform legislation or “owning” an issue such as it is. Instead, he moves with alacrity to position himself slightly closer to the party’s grassroots when such reform is proposed.

There’s nothing objectionable about the strategy. Cruz is not required to churn out white papers or author major reform legislation, and if he does run for president he’ll do so anyway. It might not be on immigration, but in all likelihood a Cruz candidacy would include a tax plan at the very least. What the strategy is allowing Cruz to do is take the temperature of the party’s grassroots as the 2016 picture fills out.

Cruz has deployed the strategy against the candidate who would probably be his closest rival for grassroots voters, Rand Paul. When the Kentucky senator staged his famous filibuster over drones to the applause of conservatives (and a few non-conservatives as well), Cruz joined him on the chamber floor for the assist. But Paul’s response to the crisis in Ukraine was too tepid for Cruz, who staked out vague but more interventionist ground:

“I’m a big fan of Rand Paul. He and I are good friends. But I don’t agree with him on foreign policy,” Cruz said. “I think U.S. leadership is critical in the world. And I agree with him that we should be very reluctant to deploy military force abroad. But I think there is a vital role, just as Ronald Reagan did… The United States has a responsibility to defend our values.”

Cruz portrays the difference between him and Paul as a philosophical one, which is why, as I’ve argued in the past, foreign policy is likely to be a more prominent point of contention in the 2016 GOP primary season than it was in 2012. As Jeb Bush’s comments showed, the contentious domestic issue is likely to be immigration, which is why, no matter how stalled in the House immigration legislation remains, it’s an argument that will only get louder between now and 2016.


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