Donald Trump's "New York Values" Deal A Devastating Blow To Ted Cruz At The GOP Debate

After spending months consciously avoiding attacking one another, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz finally took off the gloves at the sixth Republican debate. The two had several heated exchanges over the course of the night, including one centering on Cruz's allegation that Trump "embodies New York values." This could have been a popular attack line in a Republican crowd — but Trump turned it around, reminded the audience of New Yorkers' resilience after the Sept. 11 attacks, thus making Cruz look like an insensitive fool. Trump also — and I can't believe I'm writing this — struck a solemn note of genuine poignancy and respect.

The backstory: On Tuesday, Cruz remarked to a reporter that "Donald comes from New York and embodies New York values." It was an offhand comment with little relevance to the substance of the campaign, and it probably would have been forgotten if moderator Maria Bartiromo hadn't confronted Cruz about it at the debate.

Bartiromo asked Cruz what he meant by that phrase. After first attempting to sidestep the question ("Most people know exactly what New York values are," he quipped), Cruz explained that "the values in New York City are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro- gay-marriage, [and] focus around money and the media." A simple enough comment and, in the context of a GOP primary, a pretty safe attack line.

Or so it seemed. Trump quickly made it abundantly clear that Cruz made a big, big mistake by attacking "New York values." Trump's response is worth quoting in full.

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 one hundred...
[applause]
... 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.
Scott Olson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Trump might be a racist, sexist jerk. He might have been invoking 9/11 for political gain. But make no mistake: This was a sincere, genuinely moving defense of New Yorkers. You don't have to be a Trump supporter, or a native New Yorker, to feel the weight of his words. Even the manner in which he made the remarks was a break from the bombastic goofball we're accustomed to, as Trump became deadly serious in a way we've never quite seen before.

None of this excuses the rest of the odious campaign Trump has run, of course. It does, however, make Cruz look like a pathetic worm by comparison. Cruz knew this and actually applauded Trump's response — a remarkable thing to see at a debate. But the damage was already done.

Trump isn't the first politician to try and score political points by referencing Sept. 11. He's not even the first one to do so while running for president during this cycle — both Jeb Bush and Chris Christie have brought up 9/11 at prior debates. However, Trump may be the first one to effectively thread the needle, invoking the attacks in a politically effective yet respectful and honest manner. Say what you want about Trump, but he's certainly a shrewd, talented politician.

It will be a while before we can assess the long-term impact of this exchange, but if nothing else, it demonstrated that there are limits to Ted Cruz's widely-lauded skills as a debater. He miscalculated in a big way on Thursday, and wound up legitimately rattled by Trump as a consequence. If these two men remain the front-runners in the GOP race, this will be only the first of many contentious, high-stakes exchanges they have. In other words, it looks like we finally have a real race on our hands.