Ted Cruz could have had a spectacular night on Thursday in Charleston, South Carolina. His destruction of Donald Trump’s latest “birther” controversy showed Cruz’s mastery of a debate stage.
Indeed, Cruz should master the debate stage: He’s a cum laude graduate of Princeton University and earned magna cum laude honors at Harvard Law School. In college he was named national Speaker of the Year and was one half of the debating Team of the Year. An accomplished constitutional lawyer, Cruz has argued nine cases before the Supreme Court, winning five of them.
And yet after a strong opening invoking “ten American sailors…with their hands on their heads” and later the brilliant dismantling of Donald Trump’s desperate “there’s doubt about Ted’s eligibility” gambit, Thursday’s debate will likely be remembered for Senator Cruz’s unforced error — or was it? — on the subject of “New York values.”
It began like this: Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo, co-moderating the debate with her colleague Neil Cavuto, asked, “Senator Cruz, you suggest that Mr. Trump ‘embodies New York values.’ Could you explain what you mean by that?”
Cruz, with a snarky expression that is as close as he gets to a smile, responded quickly: “I think most people know exactly what New York values are.” Bartiromo, appearing more annoyed than confused, persisted, saying that she’s from New York and doesn’t understand what he means. Cruz retorted, “You’re from New York so you might not… but I promise you in the state of South Carolina they do.”
And the crowd went wild.
Cruz went on to explain that “the values in New York city are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro-gay marriage, focused around money and the media.”
It is a line of attack that he has used before on the campaign trail. He may have thought that what works in a small meeting of ultra-conservative GOP activists in Iowa or South Carolina would work on a national stage, televised to 11 million viewers.
Donald Trump’s response, which did not actually address his long and self-admitted history of holding approximately every liberal position on taxes, guns, abortion, property rights and more, was devastatingly effective, reminding the nation of the strength of New York City following the 9/11 attacks, including that “no place on earth could have handled (the tragedy) more beautifully, more humanely than New York did.”
It was the most heartfelt statement, perhaps the only one, Mr. Trump has uttered during this blustery campaign season, providing a moment that even an uber-liberal Washington Post reporter called “noble.” And all Ted Cruz could do was stand there and applaud while envisioning The Donald pointing at him and saying “You’ve been served.”
There are many Republican base voters who look at Manhattan (and particularly at its flagship newspaper) as representing everything that misunderstands, devalues, and threatens our nation’s Founding Principles and therefore as worthy of derision, insult, and denigration. Across the rest of the nation, eyes glaze over when conservatives bash the Gray Lady and her hometown.
That’s why Cruz and Trump were largely addressing different audiences: Cruz, running neck and neck with Trump in Iowa, and well behind him in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and nationally, was pandering to that conservative base. After all, if Cruz cannot win any of the first four states while he and Donald Trump wrestle for roughly the same subset of Republican voters, he — even more than Marco Rubio should the Florida senator finish a respectable second or third in a few of those contests — will have voters and pundits questioning the rationale of the Cruz campaign’s continued existence.
The Trump-Cruz gap may already be too much for Cruz to make up in early states other than Iowa but it will be emphatically so if he does not to emerge from Iowa with the momentum of a victory. Therefore, the Texas senator is betting all his marbles — and occasionally stretching, if not sacrificing, his vaunted principles — in an effort to win the Hawkeye State’s caucuses on February 1.
So it was Iowa’s very conservative Republican caucus participants (and eventually primary voters in South Carolina more than the other early states mentioned above), people for whom the Manhattan culture feels not just different but foreign, at whom Ted Cruz’s anti-New York commentary is aimed. Cruz may also hope that the uproar gives him an opening to inject some of Trump’s liberal history which, as old as it is, may yet be a revelation to a handful of Republican voters.
I wish I could say that it will not work, that it cannot work, not because I hope for a Trump victory but because the politics of group-insult represents an ignorant and xenophobic mindset (even among Iowans thinking about New Yorkers) which I have apparently deluded myself into believing Americans were above, a mirage that Donald Trump’s success had already shattered.
Calls to my radio show the morning after the debate were divided over whether Trump or Cruz won the exchange, but those who gave the round to Cruz were particularly intense and politically active Republican voters channeling the vaunted “anger” of Republicans that the “mainstream” media keeps reminding us about and which Donald Trump explicitly accepted as his mantle during the debate.
Which brings us to Trump’s response to Ted Cruz’s insult of America’s most important city: By offering a reaction that showed emotion and compassion rather than anger and division, Trump demonstrated that he recognizes he has a likeability (and therefore an electability) problem nationwide.
For those who think that Trump will likely win November’s presidential election, consider his -27 (dis)approval rating among American independent voters and his -70 rating among Democrats. For context, the same numbers for Ted Cruz — a man whom it’s easy for both groups to dislike — are -3 and -37 respectively.
Even among Republicans, Trump’s net favorability rating barely exceeds that of Chris Christie, a man whom many Republicans consider to be persona non grata in the GOP presidential field. Trump may not admit it in public, but he knows these numbers as well as he knows the more positive poll numbers that he loves throwing around during debates and interviews.
Despite positive polling nationally and even as a Trump nomination slowly starts seeming more likely to supporters, pundits, and opponents alike, a successful businessman like Donald Trump does not take anything for granted. So he has in recent weeks begun to put a more agreeable face on what has been a purely disagreeable campaign.
Trump’s message is a long-term one, thinking past Iowa, whereas Cruz’s debate message was, and will continue for the next two weeks to be, all Iowa all the time.
Although each man’s behavior is tactically rational, it saddens me that Cruz believes, perhaps with good reason, that a winning campaign message involves tearing down other Americans in large numbers, especially when I thought we left the Alinskyite politics of division and group-identity to lifelong liberals like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
It is ironic that the king of false and unnecessarily personal insults was saved on Thursday night by his leading competitor’s true and unnecessary insult. But such is the 2016 presidential campaign, and such is yet another strong argument for Marco Rubio, who seems to be solidifying his position as the sane alternative when voters tire of the Trump-Cruz cage match.
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