Over the past two weeks, the GOP primary race has become a contest between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the two frontrunners in both national polls and in the state Iowa.
The pair will stand next to each other at tonight's GOP primary debate in South Carolina, positioned center stage as a result of their standing in the polls. The contest between them is tonight's main event.
The Trump/Cruz squabble is mind-numbingly stupid at almost every level. It is not a contest of ideas or policies, but a battle of attitude and insult, of culture-war positioning and social media put-downs. In other words, it reflects the awful current state of the GOP primary.
Trump kicked off the current round of hostilities by charging that Ted Cruz may not be eligible for the presidency, because he is not a "natural-born citizen." Cruz, who was born in Canada, responded by releasing his mother's birth certificate, making it clear that she was a U.S. citizen. There is no real question about whether Cruz is eligible—he is—but Trump's attacks have worked anyway, distracting Cruz on the campaign trail and raising some doubts about his candidacy. In a Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll of Iowans, 15 percent indicated they felt "bothered" by the fact that Cruz was born in Canada. Conservative voters have become so feverishly opposed to immigration that even the hint of a foreign connection is enough to make them wary of a candidate.
But don't feel too bad for Cruz. He has stoked fears of immigration constantly on the campaign trail himself, calling for biometric tracking, a tripling of Border Patrol agents, and, naturally, building a wall along the entire southern border, which in its current "unsecured" state "invites illegal immigrants, criminals, and terrorists to tread on American soil." Indeed, Cruz has been so successful in stoking these fears that he has caused Trump to gripe that Cruz is just a rip-off candidate, stealing his anti-immigrant thunder by copy-catting his proposal to build a wall—an idea he says originated with his campaign. (Not surprisingly, Trump is mostly wrong; Cruz has publicly supported building a fence or barrier of some kind for years.)
"People are picking up all of my ideas, including Ted, who started talking about building a wall two days ago," Trump complained to Politico earlier this week. "The fact is, they won't get it built, they don't know how to do the job, and they won't get Mexico to pay for it."
To be clear: Their ideas about building a wall along the border are essentially the same. The beef is really about who is going to be the most successful in stoking and exploiting anti-immigrant sentiment for political gain.
Cruz, meanwhile, has also hit Trump for the place he calls home: New York City."Donald comes from New York and he embodies New York values," Cruz said on Tuesday. Asked to explain what, exactly, that means, Cruz added, "They're not Iowa values, and they're not New Hampshire values," clarifying nothing.
The point, though, was for Cruz to do to Trump was Trump has done to Cruz with his Canada birtherism: to attempt to scare early Republican primary voters away from Trump by warning that he comes from a different place, a different culture, a different home—to say to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire that Trump is not like you, not one of you, but I am. It is a pure culture-war trash-talk, a base appeal to identity and affinity above all else.
That this is the chief dispute between the top two GOP contenders going into tonight's debate is intensely revealing. Sadly, it is not only the defining argument within the party's primary race, but the defining sentiment within much of the GOP.