It seems like a lot longer than three months since we first heard the words “New York values” pass the lips of Ted Cruz. At the time, Cruz was trying to persuade Iowa conservatives that Donald Trump was neither a Republican nor a conservative. He wasn’t wrong about that, but by seeming to damn an entire city, if not a state, for the sake of a shot at Trump, he handed the real estate mogul his first really good debate moment. On January 14, at the Fox Business Channel’s debate in Charleston, South Carolina, Trump body slammed Cruz by pointing out that, in speaking that way about New York, he was insulting all of its citizens as well as the memory of William F. Buckley, 9/11, and the first responders who perished that day. That exchange was largely forgotten in the tumultuous weeks that followed, but, as the campaign heads to New York where the next primary will be contested, it turns out that Cruz’s cheap shot might play a role in helping Trump get momentum back on his side after a devastating loss in Wisconsin. Indeed, that line may not just hurt Cruz in New York but also might remind Republican voters of what they didn’t like about the senator in the first place.
A lot has happened in the intervening 84 days since Trump’s devastating debate comeback.
Cruz won Iowa but then Trump began racking up primary victories that put him within sight of the nomination. That exchange in Charleston marked the end of a long period during which Cruz had refused to criticize Trump even as other candidates were trying in vain to point out his unsuitability for the presidency. But that period of Trump-Cruz détente seems like it happened sometime in the last century. Since then, we’ve had Trump’s birther claims about Cruz, his attempt to brand the Texas senator as a cheat and then his astonishing attack on Heidi Cruz. That latter piece of stereotypical Trump thuggishness was part of the prelude to the Wisconsin primary that seemed to signal that many mainstream Republicans were starting to accept Curz as the most credible alternative to Trump as well as a sign that the frontrunner was finally starting to pay a price for his behavior, misstatements and lack of knowledge about the issues.
Trump is responding to his Wisconsin setback in characteristic fashion by heaping more attacks on Cruz. Last night, at a Long Island rally, he led a crowd in chants of “lyin’ Ted” and revisited the “New York values” moment. Will this help him roll to a landslide in the April 19 primary where 95 delegates are at stake?
It is a matter of consensus among political observers that if Trump had been able to start acting like a president in the last month, the GOP race would be over. But he either can’t or won’t (he says it would be “boring as hell”), and he seems unable to resist the temptation to get into the gutter or to take the time to give serious study to issues as diverse as abortion or foreign policy. Instead of adjusting to the role of potential commander-in-chief, Trump is content to remain Trump, and his core supporters who delight in every outrageous thing or vicious attack he utters are happy about it even as the rest of the country recoils in disgust.
By contrast, in the last three months, Cruz has shown some growth. Whereas he started out in the race sounding at times like a televangelist, in his Wisconsin victory speech he seemed to be channeling some of Marco Rubio’s trademark optimism if not that of Ronald Reagan. He hasn’t changed his stance on the issues, but the tone is different lately. That’s important because the point about Cruz, who has a well-earned reputation as a bomb-thrower in the Senate that can’t get along with his GOP colleagues, is that his stance as an anti-establishment rebel was largely based on tone and tactics rather than ideology.
It’s true that Cruz has succumbed to the populist temptation and blasted trade deals as a betrayal of American interests and taken largely inconsistent stands on foreign policy (strong on Israel but all over the place when it comes to fulfilling U.S. responsibilities elsewhere). But take away the self-righteous attitude in which he always claimed to be the one honest man in Washington battling GOP leaders that he didn’t shrink from calling liars and, for the most part, you have a candidate that can be defended as a mainstream conservative. That is especially true when you contrast Cruz with Trump.
That’s still a bridge too far for a lot of establishment Republicans who remember how Cruz led the party off a cliff with the government shutdown in 2013. Others still view him as too wedded to social conservatives on issues that are losers for the GOP in a general election. Logic dictates that Republicans that don’t want Trump to be their nominee and lead them to certain defeat in the fall need to get behind Cruz. John Kasich may be more in line with their views, but he has failed everywhere but Ohio and is clearly out of touch with most GOP voters. Unless the Cleveland convention isn’t merely contested but actually deadlocked and forced to turn elsewhere, Cruz is still the only plausible alternative to Trump. The failure of the party establishment to mobilize for Cruz is rooted in a lingering distaste for him, as well as a belief on the part of some that he’s as much of a certain loser in a general election as Trump.
Cruz appears to be smart enough to learn from his mistakes as he goes along. Whereas he defined “New York values’ in January as symbolic of support for abortion and gay marriage, now he’s trying to associate it with unpopular Democrats like Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio. But the “New York values” line may continue to haunt him, not just because it helps Trump remind New Yorkers that he is a fellow native of the city, but also because it is a touchstone of what many in the GOP see as Cruz’s streak of extremism. And if that is the way most primary voters are going to think of Cruz, he is going to get creamed by Trump in New York as well as in the other Northeastern primaries this month, where he needs to make a dent in the frontrunner’s supposed stranglehold on the region.
Cruz understood long before anyone else did that 2016 would be a year in which voter anger and alienation from Washington would be decisive. The only problem for him has been the fact that Trump is even more of an outsider than he is. But now is the moment when Cruz needs to execute the difficult feat of holding onto his outsider status and true-blue conservatism while also signaling to the party that he is responsible enough to lead it. He’s capable of doing just that. But the more Republicans are reminded of Cruz’s attempt to pander to the right by bashing New York, the less likely mainstream Republicans will be to embrace him. If they continue to hold him at arm’s length and split the non-Trump vote, the Donald’s path to the nomination will become that much easier.