One of the more interesting stories of this very interesting Republican primary campaign has been the relationship between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. The assumption has been from the beginning that they were competing for the same voters in the so-called "insurgent lane." And because they eventually wanted to inherit the other's supporters they were reluctant to criticize one another. As they are now neck and neck in the Iowa polls, that truce has finally broken and the two rivals have now engaged. If last night's debate is anything to go by, it promises to be quite a battle.
This clash has been building for a few weeks after it was revealed that Cruz had told some donors behind closed doors that he didn't believe Trump had the judgment to be president and that he expected Trump's followers would eventually see the light and come over to his campaign. Trump responded as usual with an angry tweet and an insult on the trail. But the insult was odd. He said:
"I am an evangelical. I'm a Christian. I'm a Presbyterian. We're doing really well with the evangelicals... And by the way, and again, I do like Ted Cruz, but not a lot of evangelicals come out of Cuba, in all fairness. It's true. Not a lot come out. But I like him nevertheless."
It sounded like a Vintage Trump non-sequitur and maybe it was. But it did have the effect of bringing up Cruz's ethnic background as the son of a Hispanic immigrant. And when a man whose campaign is predicated on deporting millions of Hispanics, whom he routinely characterizes as criminals and deadbeats, is the one who slips it into the conversation it's not much of a stretch to see it as a way to associate his foe with that negative image, particularly as you're simultaneously suggesting that he might not be a "real" evangelical, being Cuban and all. (The truth is that there are tons of Latino evangelicals.)
Cruz didn't take the bait and whatever fight was brewing at that point seemed to dissipate as everyone went off to celebrate the holidays. But over the past two weeks, as the polls started to show Cruz surpassing him in Iowa and moving up nationally, Trump has been trolling the senator hard. Significantly, he chose to go after him on the basis of his status as a "real American," questioning his eligibility to be president since he was born in Canada to an American mother and his Cuban-born father (who is now a naturalized American citizen).
It's yet another natural line of attack from the man who not only demonizes immigrants but is revered among the denizens of the right wing fever swamps for his relentless pursuit of President Obama's birth certificate back in 2012. Of course the King of the Birthers is questioning his rival's eligibility to be president. But he's doing it in the most lugubrious way possible, by saying he doesn't care about such trivialities --- he has no need to win by Cruz being disqualified --- but he cares about his good friend Ted and he just thinks he should get this all straightened out before the Democrats use it against him.
This one took. Cruz has been pushed off message, legal scholars are arguing loudly and publicly about the issue, and even some of the also-rans like Carly Fiorina have made sad attempts to be relevant by offering comments on the subject. When it comes to trolling, nobody should ever underestimate Trump. He has a gift.
But Cruz has some moves of his own. Earlier this week on the Howie Carr radio show he quipped that Donald Trump should stop playing "Born in the USA" and play "New York, New York" instead. He said Trump "comes from New York and he embodies New York values. The rest of the country knows exactly what New York values are, and I gotta say, they’re not Iowa values and they’re not New Hampshire values." The implication was obvious: Trump wasn't born in America either -- at least, not Real America.
There was immediate speculation about what Cruz meant by "New York Values," and Kellyann Conway, president of one of his well-heeled Super PACs called Keep the Promise I explained:
"New York is home to many wonderful people and places, but the emphasis is more on money than morality. The line to get into Abercrombie & Fitch is a mile longer than the line to get into St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”
Conway is a well-known GOP pollster and strategist, and it's highly unlikely that the efficacy of this attack wasn't well researched. The New York Post reported that the line had been tested on Iowa voters. (The idea that these city slickers are all into the Benjamins is kind of funny, however, considering that Conway's Super PAC is funded by a major donor who happens to hail from NYC.)
Frankly, Conway was being a little bit disingenuous about what Cruz was getting at in any case. This is actually a well-worn right-wing trope that dates back to early days of the conservative movement's culture war. Recall the famous words of former UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick who railed against the "San Francisco Democrats" in her 1984 GOP convention speech. The term was so freighted with images of allegedly decadent liberal culture, from hippies to gays, that she didn't have to even mention them. Anyway, the age-old divide between the country folk and the city folk is always in play to some degree, what with the Republican Party being dominant in rural America in recent years. Cruz knows his demographic.
At the debate last night, Trump and Cruz met face to face for the first time since their feud broke loose and they went mano a mano on Trump's birther gambit and Cruz's "New York values" riposte. Neither one delivered a put away shot.
Cruz was challenged first on the birther issue and his answer left Trump sputtering:
You know, back in September, my friend Donald said that he had had his lawyers look at this from every which way, and there was no issue there. There was nothing to this birther issue.
Now, since September, the Constitution hasn't changed.
But the poll numbers have...
At the end of the day, the legal issue is quite straightforward, but I would note that the birther theories that Donald has been relying on -- some of the more extreme ones insist that you must not only be born on U.S. soil, but have two parents born on U.S. soil.
Under that theory, not only would I be disqualified, Marco Rubio would be disqualified, Bobby Jindal would be disqualified and, interestingly enough, Donald J. Trump would be disqualified. Because Donald's mother was born in Scotland. She was naturalized.
Trump exclaimed, "But I was born here! Big difference!" finally putting the lie to his fatuous excuses about only caring for Cruz's vulnerability against the big bad Democrats.
But it was Trump who got the last laugh on the "New York Values" issue. When Cruz was asked what he meant by that, he reiterated Conway's line about all the wonderful (but greedy and heathen) New Yorkers, and referenced an interview Trump did with Tim Russert some years back in which Trump had very different views on social issues than he has now. According to Cruz, Trump told Russert, "Look, I'm from New York, that's what we believe in New York. Those aren't Iowa values, but this is what we believe in New York."
And then he threw Trump's line about there being no evangelicals coming out of Cuba right back in his face:
"I guess I can frame it another way. Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan. I'm just saying."
That would have been a great line, except that Trump came back with an epic zinger so effective that he had Cruz clapping and the South Carolina audience practically linking arms and singing "New York, New York" through their tears:
When the World Trade Center came down, I saw something that no place on Earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York. You had two 110-story buildings come crashing down. I saw them come down. Thousands of people killed, and the cleanup started the next day, and it was the most horrific cleanup, probably in the history of doing this, and in construction. I was down there, and I've never seen anything like it.
And the people in New York fought and fought and fought, and we saw more death, and even the smell of death -- nobody understood it. And it was with us for months, the smell, the air.
And we rebuilt downtown Manhattan, and everybody in the world watched and everybody in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers. And I have to tell you, that was a very insulting statement that Ted made.
He played the 9/11 card, and he played it masterfully.
This first round in the Cruz-Trump cage match ended in a draw and they both lived to fight another day. They're both very, very good at this nasty game in their own ways. Cruz may be the only one who can get under Trump's skin but Trump's a natural playground bully. This isn't the end of it.
You may wonder if anyone said anything important in the debate last night, since this most certainly isn't important in the least. Sadly, no. Other than the usual Obama-Clinton-Democrat bashing, distortions, lies, obfuscations and saber rattling, they had nothing new to say about anything. At this point, the slugfest is so exhausting that the candidates even forgot to yell at the moderators or blame the media for their troubles. They all looked as though they couldn't wait wait for it all to be over. It's pretty much guaranteed the audience felt the same way.