Jan. 15, 2016 12:12 p.m. ET
The sixth Republican debate on Thursday showed off a smaller top tier of candidates, who also showed that they’re getting better the more they debate. All of the contenders had their moments, but the main event was Donald Trump versus Ted Cruz, and Mr. Trump won handily with an big assist from “New York values,” of all things.
The Texas Senator this week said Mr. Trump “embodies New York values” as a way to suggest that the Manhattan businessman isn’t really a conservative. The two are fighting it out to finish first in the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1, and Mr. Cruz decided to change his previous strategy of praising Mr. Trump and slip-streaming in his policy wake.
He’s right that Mr. Trump isn’t a conventional conservative. The branding expert has no consistent philosophy that we can detect, and his economic instincts are sometimes free market, but more often mercantilist. He understands corporate taxes but is a flat-out protectionist on trade. Mr. Trump says the Chinese will roll over on trade if he threatens them with, say, a 45% tariff, but that is a leap in the dark of beggar-thy-neighbor economics. As President he would be a policy adventure, and his Treasury Secretary might need to be the second coming of Alexander Hamilton.
But Mr. Trump is a better politician than we ever imagined, and he is becoming a better candidate. The Texan was asked about his “New York values” gibe, and he said with almost a sneer that “you know, I think most people know exactly what New York values are.” Pressed on the point, Mr. Cruz then rang the Iowa conservative bells of “socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro-gay-marriage, focus around money and the media.”
Mr. Trump struck back that “conservatives actually do come out of Manhattan, including William F. Buckley and others, just so you understand.” He then won the round in a knockout by invoking the response of the firefighters, police and the entire city after 9/11. “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,” he said.”
The exchange was all the more notable because Mr. Trump delivered the message in an un-Trumpian way: deliberate, almost softly. It showed a more gracious candidate than the name-caller he has often been and suggested he might possibly be able to appeal to a larger set of voters than he has so far.
The exchange also exposed a couple of Mr. Cruz’s weaknesses. One is his opportunistic, implausible populism. The Texan is a Princeton debate champion who attended Harvard Law School, clerked at the Supreme Court, worked in the Justice Department and held the second highest legal job in Texas. If he’s an Everyman from the provinces, Hillary Clinton is Mother Teresa.