Critic's Notebook: Trump And Cruz Get Nasty, Squabble Over "New York Values" at GOP Debate

The only things that all of the candidates could agree on were the sacredness of the Second Amendment and that Hillary Clinton would destroy the country.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

That's not meant to evoke Charles Dickens, but rather to sum up the vastly different views of America as expressed by politicians this week. On Tuesday night President Obama, in his State of the Union address, tried to convince the country that things were going pretty well. In Thursday night's GOP debate the candidates basically proclaimed that the world is going to hell.

As if they had ingested a heavy dose of political Viagra, the candidates used the president's speech to deliver blistering attacks on him, and by extension, Hillary Clinton, in the opening segment.

"On Tuesday night I watched 'Storytime with Barack Obama,' " Chris Christie sneered.

Obama lives in an "alternative universe," Jeb Bush pronounced.

"Hillary Clinton is disqualified from being commander-in-chief," Marco Rubio fumed. He also announced that he would rely on the advice of "the most powerful intelligence agency in the world" to fight terrorism. Presumably he meant Israel's Shin Bet, since our former CIA director assured George W. Bush that it was a "slam dunk" that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Speaking of mass destruction, Ben Carson took the opportunity while answering a question about terrorists to deliver a detailed description of how they could cripple America by such methods as attacking our electrical grid. If any members of ISIS were watching, they were probably taking notes.

The candidates often seemed like vultures circling the dead. Donald Trump referred to the critically injured victims of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks as if he couldn't wait for them to expire and raise the body count. And several of the candidates mentioned how many Supreme Court Justices the next president would be appointing, no doubt prompting those currently on the bench to immediately call their physicians and urgently request check-ups.

But enough about the issues. The evening was far more notable as a Cruz/Trump smackdown. The pair, previously involved in a heartwarming bromance, went at each other furiously after the former was asked about Trump's attacks on him for not being a natural born citizen and thus ineligible for the presidency.

Referring to Trump's mother's birth in Scotland, Cruz told his rival, "I'm not going to use your mother's birth against you." Trump, clearly flustered by the loud booing directed toward him, said that he hadn't cared about the issue before, but did now "because [Cruz's] doing a little bit better" in the polls. Even he seemed to be laughing at the absurdity of his argument, which included telling Cruz he should get a good lawyer to thoroughly vet the issue.

"I'm not taking legal advice from Donald Trump," Cruz responded, even as the two men jokingly offered each other their VP slots. But it was Marco Rubio who got the biggest laugh when he piped in, "I hate to interrupt this episode of Court TV." Meanwhile, President Obama, who famously had to deal with the birther issue himself, was presumably in the White House laughing his ass off.

The two men also got heavily into it over Cruz's attack on Trump about having "New York values." The Donald, who looked aggrieved if he had to answer any question with anything more than a yes or no, took the opportunity to deliver a passionate defense of his state and city, citing the heroic response to the 9/11 attacks as an example.

Cruz, perhaps suddenly doubting the wisdom of insulting one of the country's most populous states, was uncharacteristically sheepish. He finally conceded that there were many "wonderful people" there.

Cruz was also asked about the recent story in the New York Times exposing his senatorial campaign for not reporting a $1 million loan from Goldman Sachs, where his wife works.

"The New York Times and I don't exactly have the warmest of relationships," Cruz pointed out, before dismissing the issue as a mere "paperwork error."

Trump later picked up the attack against the Gray Lady when posed a question about the paper's reporting that he was proposing a massive tariff on Chinese imports, huffing, "It's The New York Times, they're always wrong." Tomorrow's editorials in the paper were writing themselves.

The evening's other main slugfest was between Rubio and Christie, who frequently attacked each other over issues ranging from Common Core to immigration to gun control. The latter uncharacteristically, and more than a little disingenuously, seemed to settle the issue when he announced "I like Marco Rubio."

Not surprisingly, gun control was a major topic, with all of the candidates competing with each other to see who could sound the most strident. Rubio won handily, referring to the Second Amendment so often in one answer that it seemed like he was trying to win a private bet.

(Incidentally, was it really necessary for moderator Maria Bartiromo to namecheck Dylan Roof while asking a question about the horrific Charleston church massacre? The psycho killer was probably high-fiving his fellow white supremacists while watching the debate in prison.)

The foreign policy segments were particularly strange, with Lindsay Graham's positions evoked so thoroughly by the moderators that the former candidate, sitting in the audience, was probably contemplating reentering the race. Trump referred to the Syrian migrants as a lot of "strong, powerful men," which just sounded creepy. And Jeb Bush — yes, he was there too — apparently reconsidered the wisdom of his previous attacks on Trump's position about banning Muslim immigrants. Instead of calling the idea "unhinged," as the moderators reminded him he had done, he implored Trump, "I hope you'll reconsider," sounding like a pimply teenager begging his girlfriend not break up with him.

There were the usual surreal moments. Carson informed us that "secular progressives" don't have "values or principles." But then again, he wasn't likely to get the atheist or agnostic vote anyway.  

With a question that would no doubt appear in the dictionary if you looked up the word "irony," Bartiromo actually asked Christie about how to best to fix the country's "ailing roads and bridges."

Uh, here's an idea. How about not closing them?

Cruz plugged his proposal to take away the citizenship and passports of Americans who traveled overseas and engaged in terrorist activities. Or, as Obama might point out, you could kill them instead.

Trump, when asked about whether he would put his financial assets into a blind trust if he was elected president, responded that he would put his beloved companies in the hands of his children, including Ivanka, who were sitting in the audience.

"Run the company, kids, have a good time," he grandstanded, having apparently never seen a performance of King Lear.

And in his closing statement, Cruz managed to get in a plug for the movie 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, opening the following day. So much for Hollywood's liberal agenda.