In an era of wrenching economic and social change, voters bet their hopes on a little-tested leader who a) echoed their disillusionment, b) pledged to end polarization, c) defied his party’s extremists, d) embraced the task of tackling big problems, e) and seemed authentic.
And so it happened in 1992, 2000 and 2008 that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama became president. Judging by his rhetoric after a landslide re-election Tuesday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie hopes to package himself as the “Perfect Candidate for Troubled Times,” version 4.0.
Voters crave – and the nation needs – a transformational president to lead America into the post-industrial era, just as Theodore Roosevelt reset U.S. political and social institutions for the post-agricultural era. But after three less-than-promised presidencies, voters may not be inclined to buy the hype.
And yet, it begins. Interviewed on four Sunday news shows, Christie pushed all the familiar buttons.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, fresh off a lopsided re-election victory propelling him to the front ranks of 2016 presidential contenders, has problems at home that could complicate his ambitions—the economy and the budget.
Among the headwinds for the Republican as he sets an agenda for 2014: a state unemployment rate of 8.5% in August, compared with 7.3% nationally (and among the 10 highest of all states); a slower recovery from the recession compared with the nation; and a budget with a slimmer surplus than those in most of the rest of the country…
“New Jersey is lagging. If you want to lead the country, you have to want to lead, not lag,” said former Gov. Tom Kean, about the state’s economy.
“The whole focus on New Jersey and the weak spots are going to be there,” added Mr. Kean, a Republican who is one of Mr. Christie’s close advisers. “If he neglects New Jersey at all, and things get out of hand, that’s going to be a problem.”
If Christie is not careful, he might come across as a repeat of both Giuliani and George W. Bush. Like Bush, Christie will be running on his ballot-box and bipartisan successes, his impressive-for-a-Republican showing among minority voters, and the contrast between himself and the bickering divided government in Washington.
Bush failed to replicate much of his Texas experience nationally, a real possibility for Christie as well. It is easier to run against a polarizing incumbent governor or a sacrificial-lamb challenger abandoned by the Democrats, as they both did in state politics, than to best a fully invested national challenger.
In an effort to distinguish himself from Cruz and especially Paul, Christie has also at times sounded like Bush-Giuliani 2.0 on foreign policy and civil liberties. This is an abandonment of the more nuanced approach he took in his 2011 speech at the Reagan Library, which didn’t break with neoconservative orthodoxy in any of its particulars, but at least paid lip service to the concerns of less interventionist conservatives in the party.
If a vote for Christie is seen as a vote for bluster at home and bombing abroad, he won’t live up to his potential to grow the Republican Party as much as some of his Tea Party opponents might.
That goes to show that the old one-two punch of people-versus-the-powerful and cultural demagoguery just does not work on certain candidates, those whose mere presence somehow reveals the entire schtick to be as vacuous as it truly is. Christie is just that sort of Republican. He is pro-life, but nobody was ever going to tag him as a dangerous Holy Roller. He went after the labor unions with vigor, but Democrats did not even try to tag him as an enemy of the common man. He has his fair share of friends at the corner of Wall and Broad Streets, but he never gives the impression that he’s in their pocket. The Democrats could have given Buono $50 million to run the Clinton playbook against Christie, and she still would have lost.
Those are the sorts of qualities the Republican nominee must have to take on Clintonism in three years’ time. But that is not to say Christie is the man for the job, at least not yet. His problem is that—so far—he looks to be a divisive figure within his own party. Many conservatives are suspicious of him. Whether their reasons are legitimate or not is beside the point. One of the (many) causes of Cuccinelli’s failure in Virginia was that his own coalition was divided between the “grassroots” (who loved him) and the “establishment” (who did not). This sort of division, if taken into 2016, will prove crippling. Alienate the grassroots, and watch the base stay home. Alienate the establishment, and watch the big-money donors withdraw. The party must find a candidate who not only is immune to Clintonism, but also does not exacerbate existing divisions within the GOP coalition. All hands will have to be on deck in 2016.
Whether Christie is that candidate is still to be seen. A lot of questions remain. Can he reassure the base? Can he appeal not simply to the Northeast, but also the Midwest, where elections are won and lost? Can he stand up to Clintonism when it is actually being administered by a Clinton and funded by half a billion dollars (or more)?
Steve Elmendorf, who served as deputy campaign manager for then-Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid, said Christie has “a conflict between appearing authentic and becoming unhinged.”
“People like the fact that he gets angry and yells at people sometimes. But they don’t want their next president to be unhinged.”…
“He is very loose with what he says, and he comes across as blunt and outspoken,” Paul Swibinski, a New Jersey-based Democratic strategist said. “It plays really well in New Jersey, the kinda Tony Soprano, Bill Parcells, Chris Christie thing of being big, tough, straight-talking Jersey guys. But how well it plays in the rest of the country remains to be seen.”
In coronating the rotund governor as the next sure-fire GOP presidential nominee in 2016, none of the mainstream media pointed out his stances on issues that they no doubt hate: Mr. Christie vetoed a bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage, vetoed several “gender parity” bills and was for abortion until he was against it. Of course, the same media played up his support of gun control and a Dream Act-like immigration overhaul. And they noted repeatedly that the governor had not followed through on a threat to appeal New Jersey’s top court ruling legalizing gay marriage.
The kingmaking certainly has shades of the media love affair with Sen. John “Maverick” McCain. The MSM loved his battle with the conservative wing of the Republican Party and lauded him as a true moderate, capable of bridging partisan gaps to work for the betterment of all. Sound familiar?
Once nominated, though, that same MSM lashed Mr. McCain as nothing more than a vicious right-winger in moderate’s clothing. Sure, the Arizona senator was forced to move right to get through the party’s primaries (as Mr. Christie likely will be), but gone was the love for their “maverick.”…
[T]he media love affair will end the second Mr. Christie wins the nomination. And you always have to wonder: If the media loves him so much, just what’s wrong with him?