Debate pyrotechnics between Cruz and Trump last night only underscores how harmonious their rhetoric and appeal is to conservative supporters.
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Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, once friendly adversaries in an otherwise spiteful Republican primary, appeared to finally end their perceived alliance Thursday, calling off their uneasy detente in the first debate of 2016. Until recently, Trump has mostly laid off Cruz, while the Texas Senator has gone out of his way to be nice to Trump, frequently referring to the real-estate mogul as his "friend," as he tried to poach Trump's supporters on the campaign trail.
But that changed last week, when Cruz decided to properly get in the pit with his Republican rival. Taking the stage at the Fox Business Network debate in South Carolina, the pair launched almost immediately into a sparring match over who Is less qualified to be president, dabbling in Trump's new Cruz birther theories, and Texas Senator's confusing feelings about "New York values" and 9/11.
The feud was heated, if mostly meaningless, confirming that, three weeks before the first Republican voting contests, the GOP primary has come down to a two-man race. Rather than exposing any real differences between Cruz and Trump, though, the aggression actually underscored just how similar the two leading Republican candidates have become, as each tries to claim the "mantle of anger" in the GOP's 2016 primary.
For months, Trump has appeared to carry that "mantle of anger." South Carolina Republican Governor Nikki Haley suggested as much when she used the term in her official Republican response to Barack Obama's State of the Union this week, warning her party to avoid the "the siren call of the angriest voices." But Haley could just as easily have been talking about Cruz, whose scorched earth extremism, and penchant for masquerading fearmongering as populism, has increasingly mirrored that of his chief Republican rival.
This ruthless, angrier—and decidedly weirder—version of Cruz was on full display earlier this week in New Hampshire, where the Texas Senator held court with the first-in-the-nation primary voters in a town hall at Londonderry High School, a public school that incidentally, happens to be my alma mater. The speech, billed as Cruz's own version of the State of the Union , was a late-minute addition to Cruz's itinerary, scheduled to take place just hours before President Barack Obama gave his own, real State of the Union address .
Though Cruz's campaign insisted it was not intentional, the timing made for some on-message optics: A sitting Senator and proclaimed outsider skipping the annual pageant of bipartisanship to deliver his own bizarro speech from future, free from the constraints of reality, Washington, or the liberal media.
"In 2018 let me tell you how I hope the SOTU will go ," he told the New Hampshire audience, going on to enumerate the ways the future President Cruz will have triumphed over the apocalyptic threats leftover from Obama's America—Clinton, the IRS, the FDA, sanctuary cities, not to mention Obama himself—by the time he addresses the nation in January 2018. By 2018, for example, President Cruz will have succeeded in completely "rebuilding the military," developing a Star Wars-style missile defense to protect the homeland from nuclear attacks, and the more ominous threat of EMPs.
ISIS, Cruz added, will be "utterly and completely destroyed," and any American found assisting the group will have their citizenship revoked. By January 2018, Cruz added, President Cruz will have secured the border—with a wall. "Donald paid for it," he joked. The room swooned with laughter.
The speech, down to the sly border wall jab, was classic Trump, lacking entirely in policy specifics, and instead relying on fictional oratory to weave a right-wing fantasy for angry Republican voters looking for a win, and a perhaps a little bit of vengeance, after eight years of Obama. Ideological consistency, once the hallmark of Cruz's political brand, was overridden by the speech's marketing goal: Cruz was selling a product, stringing gelatinous blobs of political rhetoric that congealed into something resembling a campaign platform.
As Trump has shown throughout this election cycle, this is a surprisingly effective strategy: Fan the partisan flames, toss the crowd some raw steaks, and tell them a pretty story that reassures voters, while also reminding them to be very afraid. It also appears to be working for Cruz: Recent polls show the Texas Senator pulling ahead in Iowa, and taking a strong second in New Hampshire, cutting into Trump's lead in the first two states to cast ballots in the 2016 race, even as he emulates the frontrunner's message and tactics.
In New Hampshire Tuesday, Cruz seemed to hint at his political influence. By 2018, he promised the audience, the IRS will have been abolished following the passage of the flat tax, and in his State of the Union, President Cruz will inform Congress that the agency's now-empty offices have been turned into—wait for it—a Trump hotel.
"I'm pleased to say after months of that haunted house, we have finally auctioned off the IRS building to the public," Cruz said, speaking from the future. "And I for one am particularly pleased that my good friend Donald Trump will be building a hotel where the IRS used to stand."
The comment suggests the fine line that Cruz has to walk as he seeks to pull ahead of Trump without alienating his rival's die-hard fans. And If the audience at Londonderry High School was any indication, Cruz and Trump are getting their support from the same pool of Republican primary voters.
"I like Trump a lot," said Jeff Odner, a 58-year-old who owns a fiber-optic sensor systems company in Amherst, New Hampshire. He is a man who will get things done, he will hire good people and put them in positions and hold them responsible and I think that's something that hasn't been done in a while. He's done it in his businesses and you can't run a successful biz if you don't hold people accountable."
When I asked how he felt about Trump's attacks on Cruz's presidential eligibility, Odner brushed it off. "Ah, y'know, if you actually listen to his words he's not really fanning the flames," he said. "He's riling up the crowd, and when he dropped a couple points in Iowa that's one of the things he did. It's a little bit of a liberal-Democrat trick to pull that, because it's very clear to anyone involved that Cruz is clearly a citizen and he has every right [to run]."
"My dream is a Trump-Cruz ticket," he added.
In fact, many of the people I spoke to at Cruz's town hall said they'd like to see the two leading Republican candidates run on the same ballot this November. "I'd love to see [it]," said Rae Carlson, 53, of Derry, New Hampshire. Cruz, Carlson added, "stands up for John Q Public, wants to bring America back to what it was."