The sixth Republican debate sounded a lot like the first five, with one crucial difference: everyone has dropped the assumption that the eventual winner is going to be someone other than Ted Cruz or Donald Trump.
Both of the most interesting exchanges of the night were between the two, with Cruz owning Trump on the issue of his Canadian birth, and Trump one-upping him later on by turning Cruz’s dig at his “New York values” around on him. With the possible exception of Marco Rubio calling Cruz a flip-flopper late in the debate — a charge Rubio has tried and failed to make stick throughout the campaign — none of the other candidates said anything to give voters supporting either of the two frontrunners a reason to support someone else.
Here’s Cruz on his birthplace:
Said Cruz (crosstalk removed):
Well, Neil, I’m glad we’re focusing on the important topics of the evening. 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. And I recognize — I recognize that Donald is dismayed that his poll numbers are falling in Iowa. But the facts and the law here are really quite clear. Under longstanding U.S. law, the child of a U.S. citizen born abroad is a natural-born citizen. If a soldier has a child abroad, that child is a natural-born citizen. That’s why John McCain, even though he was born in Panama, was eligible to run for president. If an American missionary has a child abroad, that child is a natural-born citizen. That’s why George Romney, Mitt’s dad, was eligible to run for president, even though he was born in Mexico.
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 — because Donald’s mother was born in Scotland. She was naturalized.
Now, Donald on the issue — on the issue of citizenship, I’m not going to use your mother’s birth against you. You’re an American, as is everybody else on this stage, and I would suggest we focus on who’s best prepared to be commander- in-chief, because that’s the most important question facing the country.
This was the best answer Cruz could have given. It wasn’t enough for Cruz to insist that he is legally eligible to be president and move on — as I wrote earlier this week, a not-insignificant number of voters in Iowa don’t care about that technicality so much as they carry a general concern about outsiders. Instead, he exposed the deeply silly and dangerously originalist ideas at the core of birtherism — ideas that if taken to their extreme would have disqualified George Washington from being president (really).
Now, to be clear, Cruz did fudge the legal theories a bit by claiming that Donald Trump’s reading of the Constitution’s “natural born citizen” clause would disqualify Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal and even Donald Trump from running for president for the same reason that Trump has Cruz’s eligibility into question. Trump tried to make this distinction, pointing out that the, unlike Cruz, was born on American soil — even if one of his parents wasn’t. But by the time Trump got around to trying to make this point, it didn’t matter. Cruz had won the exchange, exposing Trump’s “concerns” about his eligibility as being an attack spurred by the tightening of the polls in Iowa — a fact Trump later conceded.
But while Cruz may have won that battle, Trump is still winning the war. And as good as Cruz’s answer on the birther issue may have been, I’m not sure it tops Donald Trump calling out Cruz’s use of the slur, “New York values” for the insult that it is:
Here’s Cruz’s defense of the term:
Moderator Maria Bartiromo: Senator Cruz, you suggested Mr. Trump, quote, “embodies New York values.” Could you explain what you mean by that?
CRUZ: You know, I think most people know exactly what New York values are.
BARTIROMO: I am from New York. I don’t.
CRUZ: What — what — you’re from New York? So you might not. But I promise you, in the state of South Carolina, they do.
And listen, there are many, many wonderful, wonderful working men and women in the state of New York. But everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro- gay-marriage, focus around money and the media.
And — and I would note indeed, the reason I said that is I was asked — my friend Donald has taken to playing Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”, and I was asked what I thought of that.
And I said, “well, if he wanted to play a song, maybe he could play, ‘New York, New York’?” And — and — you know, the concept of New York values is not that complicated to figure out.
Not too many years ago, Donald did a long interview with Tim Russert. And in that interview, he explained his views on a whole host of issues that were very, very different from the views he’s describing now. And his explanation — he said, “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 so that was his explanation.
And — and I guess I can — can frame it another way. Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan. I’m just saying.
This is a common charge from conservatives that Democrats never bother to address. It speaks in large part to the fact that the Democrats have become a coastal, urban party while the Republicans dominate in “flyover states,” who feel (not incorrectly) that the elites in New York, Washington and Los Angeles look down on them. New York is the “fake America” to the Carolinas’ “real America.” And Cruz wanted to remind voters, as others have, that Donald Trump shared the socially liberal policy views that many New Yorkers do before he decided to play around in Republican politics.
More precisely, however, and as evidenced by Cruz’s care to insert “money and the media” into his broader description of “New York values,” the term has long been understood to mean “Jewish values.” An odd slur to make against Trump, a transparently irreligious man who does his own fair share of Jewish stereotyping, but a slur it seems Cruz couldn’t help but make.
Trump was not amused:
So conservatives actually do come out of Manhattan, including William F. Buckley and others, just so you understand. And just so — if I could, because he insulted a lot of people. I’ve had more calls on that statement that Ted made — 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, 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.
Mitt Romney received 377,000 votes in New York City, which is more votes than he received in the not-exactly-liberal New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming (the point is: there are plenty of conservatives in Manhattan). But even if he didn’t, New York is part of America — and a big part of America, at that. 1 of every 38 US residents lives in New York City. That’s a lot of people to write off as being liberal and bad and Jewish before you take office. And, finally, Trump called out the supreme hypocrisy of the Republican Party’s continued insistence on using 9/11 for performative patriotism while demonizing the very people who the attacks most directly affected.
Cruz, by the way, didn’t support the extension of the James Zadroga Act, which provides funding for 9/11 first responders’ ongoing medical needs, when it stood as a standalone bill late last year. An extension of first responder funding was eventually included in the recently-passed omnibus spending bill, which Cruz also opposed.
The question coming out of the debate is which exchange mattered more: Did Cruz effectively put the issue of his Canadian birth to bed for good, and did Trump do real damage to Cruz by reminding the country that, screw you, New Yorkers are people, too? Whoever comes out ahead there has to be considered the frontrunner in the GOP race. No one else is particularly close.