Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Sixth GOP Debate: Not So Obvious: Who Exactly Trumped Who?

Steve is back for a look at the long awaited, inevitable clash between the two frontrunners in the latest GOP debate.

In the past six months, Donald Trump has been called a racist, a misogynist, a xenophobe; an anti-Muslim bigot; a self-aggrandizing blowhard of cosmic proportions, a liar, and even characterized through video clips on late night comedy as a man with inappropriate sexual interest in his daughter.

But leave it to Ted Cruz to find the insult that may draw blood.

Ted Cruz, in front of a national tv audience that included grandmothers, boy scouts, hot dogs, and yellow labs, spat out the two venomous words that the true tea partiers know to be the mother of all code words; the ultimate vilification.

He called Donald Trump a “New Yorker.”

Coyly coiling behind a palpable smarminess and thick cloud of smugness, Cruz toyed with Fox News Moderator Maria Bartaromo, who had asked him to unpack exactly what he had meant by his recent comment that Donald Trump “embodies New York values.” Cruz winked to his Carolina audience that this characterization needed no explication; haughtily he taunted the queen of money honeys, saying that it was precisely because she was from New York that she did not understand the gist.  “But in South Carolina,” Cruz oozed, “they do.”

Reveling in the fact that his red state audience was salivating, Cruz happily explained that what “everyone knows” is that the values in New York are “socially liberal, pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, and focused around money and the media.” Citing a Tim Russert interview in which The Donald was quoted as embracing the values of his native town, Cruz gilted the guilt by association. To Cruz, New York is universally viewed by the real United States of America to be the home of the secular and the sinful; a morals-free zone in which the twin pillars of greed and arrogance – the financial and media communities – live in a symbiotic homoerotic embrace that manipulates, mauls, and tramples upon the simple righteous values of Mr. and Mrs. Iowa.  Let’s just put it this way, Cruz mused, “there has never been a real conservative who came from Manhattan.” (This, of course, an elegant riposte to Trump’s contention that “there are very few evangelical Christians from Cuba”).   As if to fling a final snotball at Trump, Cruz had to turn up his hands and drawl, “Jus’ sayin’.”

What happened next finally made clear to all who have been doubters exactly why Donald Trump has been consistently leading this race.

In forty-five seconds of rhetorical brilliance, Donald turned Cruz upside down and inside out, starting by dropping the little fact bomb that Manhattan happened to have been the home of William F. Buckley. Then, Trump pivoted, and showed everyone in the audience exactly what “playing the trump card” really means.

“When the World Trade Center came tumbling down,” Trump began, “I saw something that no place on earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York… two one hundred ten story buildings came crashing down, thousands of people killed, and the clean-up started the next day, and it was the most horrific clean-up in the history of these things. And the people of New York fought and fought and fought, and we saw more death, and even the smell of death – and it was with us for months. And we rebuilt downtown Manhattan… and everybody in the world watched, and everybody in the world loved New York, and loved New Yorkers, and let me tell you,” he concluded, gesturing to the shriveling Cruz, “that was a very insulting statement that Ted made.”

In the midst of Trump’s remarks, the camera cut to Cruz, who had been shamed into joining everyone else in the auditorium in wild applause for Trump.

What came into sharp focus in those forty-five seconds was the precise nature of Donald Trump’s rhetorical gift. Trump believes deeply that when you are attacked, you cannot change the subject; that it is infinitely more powerful to turn your opponent’s own argument against him – or her. Ask Hillary Clinton, who launched a broadside against Trump, essentially arguing his the sum total of his actions equal the behavior of a misogynist. She clearly did not see his return volley coming, as he knocked her back on her heals by labelling her as enabler of her husband’s well-documented philandering. In case you haven’t been following this stuff, Planet Clinton had gone mute on this subject.

This nomination is now a battle between Cruz and Trump. And if Trump beats Cruz in Iowa, the ballgame is over.

However, while Trump carried the moment with his invocation of 9/11, I do believe that Cruz is onto something with his “New York, New York” line of attack. My first realization of this was when I received emails from friends who were effusive about Trump’s response, and I realized that each and every one was a card-carrying 10028.  Of course New Yorkers liked Trump’s put-down… but do you really think for a second that Ted Cruz cares what New Yorkers think?

The simple fact is that Donald Trump is very obviously deeply imbedded in the twin “New York” evils that Cruz cites: the financial and media communities. So far, Trump has encountered very little blowback from the Christian values community for infidelity and multiple marriages – and these uncontested facts would seem to lend middle-America evidence to Cruz’s assertion that the Donald espouses “New York values.” There is plenty of evidence that Trump has modified his positions and is not a “true conservative;” certainly his record is nowhere as uncompromising and rigid as that of Ted Cruz.

I think Cruz is on to something. You can say that Trump won the battle, but it is entirely possible that Cruz figured out how to extend the war. In that exchange, Cruz succeeded in causing Donald Trump to make an unabashed pledge of allegiance to his home city. And out there in Red State America, that could have planted a great big seed of doubt.

If all Cruz accomplished was to make this the issue of the next news cycle – in these critical days before Iowa – he has drawn blood. If all Cruz did was to plant doubt in the fields of Iowa – he as succeeded. Hey, do all you good folk out in the heartland really want the next election to be between two New Yorkers?

Americans certainly responded to New York following 9/11, and the memory of that horror is long and deep. But Americans also remember that the global financial crisis, liberal news programming, and a certain United States Senator all are stamped inextricably as New York.

If Ted Cruz can plant the idea that Donald Trump is a New Yorker first, and a conservative second, then we may be settling in for a far more protracted battle. And a protracted fight is not simply good news for Cruz… it is good news for Bush, for Rubio, for every news outlet; well, for just about every single player except Donald Trump.

So call this the New York debate, because I really did not find anything else in the entire two hours that is likely to jar the now hardening concrete of the course of these primaries.

Jeb Bush had another reasonable night, but there was a telling moment in which his implicit surrender to the inevitable became apparent. Bush’s most effective attacks on Trump have been when he points out that Trump’s proposed Muslim immigration ban only serves to alienate the very Middle Eastern countries who must put the boots on the ground in a coalition war against ISIS.  However, his pathetic conclusion was to urge Trump to change his mind, rather than ask the voters to vote for Bush.

Marco Rubio was not at his best. His strength in prior debates has resulted from polished rhetorical skill, a steady an even demeanor, a solid command of detail, and an essentially upbeat, even sunny personality that conveys warmth, humanity, and optimism. In this debate, there was a whiff of desperation in Rubio’s cube; his anti-Obama rhetoric left even Fox News own Neil Cavuto breathless in amazement. When Rubio said, “I am absolutely certain that this President would confiscate every gun in the country if he could,” Cavuto pointedly asked him to provide a single piece of evidence that this assertion was grounded in fact. Having Fox News confront you on your lack of factual support is akin to having Barry Bonds castigate A-Rod about steroids.

In this debate, Rubio’s boyish charm seemed to morph into angry Beaver Cleaver; a high-pitched whiner who seemed aware that in this, his last best chance to change the mojo before actual voting begins, he was a side-show to the main event, a boy among men. A telling indicator: Rubio won this debate’s game of “Benghazi Bingo,” which we award to the candidate who is first to try to revive the Libyan Embassy controversy, and which we have come to view as a lead indicator of desperation. It’s my bet that when the polling begins in New Hampshire, Rubio will come in behind at least two of Bush, Kasich, and Christie, and his candidacy will suddenly be in crisis.

Each of these three “centrist governors” simply held serve in this debate. Chris Christie continues his quixotic effort to repackage himself as a gun-toting arch conservative who spends his free time coming up with ever-amped up insults to the President of the United States. John Kasich has clung to a sunny message of inclusiveness that is simply out-of-step with this Republican Party. I view it to be entirely possible that New Hampshire results will take us back to the future, and Jeb Bush will be the comeback kid of 2016, finally emerging as the consolidated choice of centrist republicans.

Oh, yeah. I forgot. There was a guy named Ben Carson on the stage, too.

So, who really did play the trump card? Did Trump crush Cruz with his paean to the courage of New Yorkers in the wake of 9/11? Or was cagey Cruz luring Trump into a very different kind of birther issue – that Donald Trump was born, raised, and a product of sin city? Iowa, it’s your turn to decide. Let the 2016 Games begin…   

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