As Republican candidates debated in Charleston, South Carolina Thursday night, most were unremarkable. The uncharastically forceful tone stuck by Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) lasted only as long as his opening speech, former Gov. Jeb Bush (FL), now polling in the single digits, failed to make up any of his lost ground and retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson proved himself as simply out of the depth running for President.
The only two candidates who stood out were billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (TX).
At his last State of the Union address, the President spoke about a Syrian doctor who had lost seven of his family in an airstrike as the face of refugees. All Trump needed to do was knock down the straw man. Instead, Trump explained his opposition to taking in refugees (who are not as young or male as Trump supposes them to be) by highlighting security concerns such as the attacks in Paris, San Bernardino and Jakarta—one of the Paris attackers had a fake Syrian passport, and the other two attacks had nothing to do with migrants.
When Trump was asked about South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s response to the State of the Union address in which she called Trump one of “the angriest,” Trump got the best of both worlds by digging in his heels and agreeing with Haley. “I’m not angry,” said Trump. “I’m very angry… Our country is being run horribly… Until we fix it, I’m very, very angry.”
When Cruz answered the question about the million dollar loan he received from Goldman Sachs during his Senate race, he admitted that he had reported the loan to one committee but not another. This was a good recovery for Cruz since it was far better than admitting he’s concealed financial information.
After Cruz dismissed Trump’s question about his eligibility, Trump recovered surprisingly well. “Here’s the problem,” said Trump. “We’re running. We’re running. [Cruz] does great. I win. I choose him as my vice presidential candidate, and the Democrats sue because we can’t take him along for the ride. I don’t like that.” If Trump decided to pick Cruz as his Vice Presidential nominee, Trump wanted to make sure he’d done his homework beforehand lest he expose himself, and the Republican Party to a lawsuit by the Democrats.
“I’ve spent my entire life defending the Constitution,” Cruz replied, “[and] I’m not going to be taking legal advice from Donald Trump.”
“You don’t have to,” said Trump. “Take it from Lawrence Tribe,” a man Cruz dismissed as “a left-wing judicial activist,” a lawyer for Al Gore, and a supporter of Hillary Clinton. Cruz’s reply might have carried more weight had he actually answered the question.
Cruz then tried to recover from his misstep by reciprocating Trump’s VP offer. “I’d consider it,” said Trump, “but I think I’ll go back to building buildings if it doesn’t work out.”
The message was clear: Cruz needs Trump. Trump doesn’t need Cruz.
Be they Republican or Democrat, any candidate can use “Washington” or “Wall Street” to describe whatever they happen to be campaigning against. But directing frustration against not a capitol but against a city or a state runs a dangerous risk. Even though I am likely the polar opposite of a typical Chicago politician, I have no ill feeling towards the city itself. Judging by their reaction to the skirmish between Cruz and Trump, many in South Carolina feel the same way about New York City.
When moderator Maria Bartiromo asked Cruz about his comments that Trump “embodies New York values,” what chances Cruz had of securing himself the VP pick quickly evaporated.
“I think most people know exactly what New York values are,” said Cruz.
“I am from New York,” said Bartiromo, born, raised and educated in New York. “I don’t.”
Cruz continued, “everyone understands that the values in New York City,” the values of the city itself, “are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro-gay-marriage, [and] focus around money and the media… Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan. I’m just saying.” Trump remained silent throughout.
“Are you sure about that?” asked Bartiromo.
“Conservatives actually do come out of Manhattan,” Trump said breaking his silence, “including William F. Buckley and others, just so you understand.”
Trump continued: “New York is a great place. It’s got great people; it’s got loving people, wonderful people. 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… 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… [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,” Trump finished, “that was a very insulting statement that Ted made.”
After the debate, Cruz clarified that he was not deriding “New York values” but rather “liberal politicians” from New York. If true, Cruz ought to have said so during the debate rather than digging in his heels. But the harm had already been done. It would have been as if Cruz derided legalized abortion, legalized same-sex, and social liberalism not as “liberal politicians” but as the embodiment of “American values.”
When Paris was attacked, millions of Americans looked with pity on a city far more liberal and far more socialized than most Americans would wish their own to be, and yet, as Trump said, “everybody in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers.” It may be a long shot, but after Thursday night millions of Americans, regardless of their political persuasion, may not only look with pity on liberal, pro-abortion, pro-gay-marriage New York but may look with interest on the man who “embodies New York values.”