MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — What are New York values?
That’s been the subject of much discussion among the political class since Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz started using the phrase to jab ally-turned-rival Donald Trump, igniting a controversy that led to an unexpectedly stirring Trump defense of his home city during Thursday’s debate and a winking non-apology from Cruz the next day, as the long-held détente between the two candidates erupted over Trump’s birther attacks on Cruz.
But the handy thing about the concept of “New York values” is that everybody thinks they’re something different. Was Cruz saying Trump is a liberal? That he’s un-American? That he’s crass, amoral? People can fill in the blanks. To the voters Cruz is targeting, the phrase can suggest any number of things — and it does. In an election season characterized by blunt political instruments, New York values is a effective for its relative subtlety.
On an anecdotal level, activists assembled at a tea party convention in Myrtle Beach on Saturday all had different responses for what New York values means to them. Both Cruz and Trump spoke at the conference that day, and the crowd was stacked with supporters of both candidates.
“I’ve never been to New York, I really don’t know,” said Steve Brown, 58. “Well, I’m seeing that Mayor de Blasio and he seems to be against his own police force and he’s against the Second Amendment, and if that’s their values I don’t want nothing to do with it.”
“New York is like a piece of the United States that’s not exactly traditional, it’s such a mixture of all kinds of feelings, all kind of backgrounds,” said Dona Vasey, 65. “I think it’s almost too much diversity. Not to say you can’t live there or anything, it’s just so saturated with diversity. That’s what I think of when I think of New York, I can be there but I don’t know if I can live there.”
“Our son is dating a New York girl, she’s Italian, and he made the comment, this was months ago, about she’s got New York attitude,” said Cathy Johnson, 59. “It’s just, I don’t know how to explain it, they have their own beliefs. They’re strong opinionated, that’s what it is, strong opinions.”
“Donald Trump is the one that said he had the New York values, and Ted Cruz is just reiterating what Donald Trump said,” she said.
Cruz has offered, kind of, a definition of New York values: “Everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro- gay-marriage, focus around money and the media,” he said during the Republican primary debate on Thursday in Charleston, South Carolina.
He then made his intent a little clearer the next day, telling reporters at a campaign stop in Columbia that he was apologizing — but not for his comments. Instead, he apologized to New Yorkers for their liberal politicians, listing a litany of New York-specific liberal policies that he characterized as being foisted on honest, hard-working New Yorkers. The comments seemed an attempt to put a finer point on the difference between criticism of New York politics and criticism of New Yorkers themselves.
Despite that, the Cruz campaign has not backed down on New York values despite withering criticism, and indeed have stuck with it even after Trump’s debate response that left Cruz with no reply but to clap along with the audience, leading some to suggest that Cruz had overplayed his hand. The campaign has circulated a video of Trump on television in 1999 saying, “I lived in New York City and Manhattan all my life so my views are a little bit different than if I lived in Iowa,” and Cruz tweeted the video on Saturday.
They aren’t trying to sway New York media types, but instead conservative voters in Iowa and elsewhere who find Cruz attractive for the very thing he’s attacking Trump on: values. As Bloomberg’s Joshua Green pointed out on Sunday, 98% of Cruz’s Iowa supporters said in a Bloomberg/Des Moines Register poll that they like his “Christian values in opposing abortion and gay marriage.”
Of course, not everyone’s buying it. Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 but who has failed to get any traction this time around as Cruz has become dominant in Iowa, praised Trump’s response when asked about New York values during a media availability ahead of his appearance at the tea party convention in Myrtle Beach.
“I think Donald Trump did a great job the other night in talking about the kind of values that we saw in the sacrifice of New Yorkers on 9/11,” Huckabee said. He took a dig at Cruz when asked if Donald Trump had changed his position on values, saying, “If you want to talk about a candidate that’s switched positions you’ve got a bunch of them out there that’s changed themselves on TPP, ethanol, foreign policy and all over the board.”
“New York values” is “a really failed attempt at a throwaway line,” said Jim Royal, 71, another attendee at the conference. But Royal, who said he’s a Cruz fan, said he understood the exigencies of the campaign and didn’t begrudge Cruz for it.
“It was an excellent card played by Trump – I loved it, I stood up and clapped, thought it was fantastic, but I don’t discredit Cruz for his throwaway campaign sloganeer type joke.”
“I don’t think [Cruz] meant it in the context it came off,” said Brenda Stewart, 73, a Trump and Cruz fan. “I wish they would not criticize each other, but that’s politics and that’s something they’ve got to do to get through the process.”