Donald Trump has started playing “Born in the USA” at his rallies, in a not-so-subtle reference to the ongoing faux-controversy over whether Ted Cruz satisfies the Constitution’s requirement that the president be a “natural born citizen.”
For his part, Cruz has repeatedly and emphatically insisted that he, like George Romney and Barry Goldwater and John McCain before him, is a “natural born citizen” by virtue of his mother’s American citizenship. He has been careful not to mention that other guy who faced similar and equally bogus charges from Donald Trump relating to their eligibility to be president based on their birth:
Trump’s game here has been incredibly well-played. He doesn’t claim to have a strong opinion as to whether Cruz is actually eligible to be president; he just keeps reminding everyone that Cruz wasn’t born here and letting Cruz’s long list of enemies in Washington do the rest of the work for him:
— Luke Russert (@LukeRussert) January 12, 2016
I don’t think very many people, including Trump, seriously believe that this story is going to end with the Supreme Court ruling that Ted Cruz is disqualified from running for president. That isn’t the goal here. While this contrived “debate” has legal nerds quibbling over which words mean what when, Ted Cruz’s Canadian birth lingering in the news cycle is more damaging to his candidacy than it is to his eligibility. And Trump knows it.
Trump knows that there is a solid subset of voters in the Republican primary whose patriot buttons can be pushed by the mere fact that Cruz wasn’t born in one of the 50 states. Some of these voters may think that “natural born citizen” means that you have to be born within the borders of the US of A, and can therefore be convinced that Cruz is disqualified from running for president, but most of them probably don’t. They do, however, have a negative gut feeling about the idea of electing a president who wasn’t born here. Just because it’s legal for Cruz to run doesn’t mean the issue magically goes away. Eligible or no, he’s still a foreigner.
Bear in mind that Donald Trump got the bulk of the Republican Party to agree that birthright citizenship was a bad idea by suggesting that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution wasn’t actually constitutional. He raised a legal question on an issue where John Q. Voter cares much more about the politics — legality aside, Republican primary voters would very much like to deport the children of undocumented immigrants — shaping political attitudes for reasons that had nothing to do with the original, wildly off-base legal question.
The same applies here. Ted Cruz is obviously eligible to run for president just like birthright citizenship is obviously constitutional. But Republican primary voters are more uncomfortable with birthright citizenship now, and they could be more uncomfortable with Ted Cruz soon. According to a Public Policy Polling survey of Iowa Republicans released today, only 46 percent of Iowa Republicans are aware that Cruz was born in Canada. However, when they were informed of his Canadian birth, only 65 percent of respondents said that it made no difference to them. As in, 35 percent of Iowa Republicans care at least a little bit that Cruz was born in Canada — even if that has no bearing on the legality of his prospective presidency. What’s more, 24 percent of Ted Cruz’s own supporters indicated that someone born outside of the United States should not be allowed to be president. For a candidate like Cruz, whose absolutist stance on immigration is tailor-made to emphasize deep-seated conservative moral foundations relating to patriotism, purity and security, emphasizing his foreign birthplace will probably do more to undermine his credibility than lawyerly quibble over his policy proposals ever could.
As I wrote last week, this issue shouldn’t matter, but it does. And Cruz’s opponents — who are far from limited to the other candidates in the Republican primary — will do everything they can to keep the issue salient until they have reason to believe that Republican primary voters have stopped caring. That day may never come.