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Enough About “Electability”

In August 2007, Marc Ambinder noticed something in a fundraising letter from the presidential campaign of Rudy Giuliani. The letter pitched Giuliani as the only Republican who could win the 2008 general election, and referred occasionally to the specter of Democratic victory. It was early in the primary process, so there was no Democratic nominee yet. But then the letter slipped, writing that the recipients’ donations “will go a long way in helping Rudy go the distance and beat Hillary Clinton next November.”

In the end, of course, Clinton did not win her nomination, and Giuliani did not win his. Nonetheless, what is often forgotten is that Hillary’s supposed “inevitability” in 2007-2008 inspired Giuliani to base his candidacy in large part on his ability to defeat her in the general election. Giuliani did this because he was too far removed from the base of the party ideologically to run as one of them (though there were plenty of impressive conservative accomplishments in Giuliani’s time as mayor of New York), so he ran as the guy who could win.

Last night at a closed-door gathering of the Republican National Committee in Boston, another tough-on-crime Republican from the Northeast, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, made a similar pitch about 2016:

“We are not a debating society,” Christie told the 168 members of the committee and other Republican operatives gathered for lunch in a Boston hotel ballroom — a remark received as a continuation of their feud. “We are a political operation that needs to win.”

“See I’m in this business to win,” he continued. “I’m in it to win. I think that we have some folks who believe that our job is to be college professors. College professors are fine I guess. Being a college professor is — they basically spout out ideas but nobody ever does anything about them. For our ideas to matter we have to win. Because if we don’t win, we don’t govern. And if we don’t govern, all we do is shout into the wind.”

[…]

“The emphasis was on electability,” said Texas GOP Chairman Steve Munisteri. “And he made the case that he is electable, so I think you saw a foreshadowing of 2016.”

“His whole pitch was: as a party all you should be thinking about is winning, and look I’ve got the winning formula,” Munisteri recounted.  “I took all that to mean: I’m going to be a candidate in 2016. If you want to win…I’m your candidate.”

Christie is generally thought to be among the more electable potential 2016 candidates, but it’s a mistake to push this line of argument. Simply put, the party’s primary voters don’t care. Conservatives were told that Mitt Romney was the electable candidate in 2012, which was supposed to be his saving grace. Similar comments were made about John McCain, who was considered a moderate with bipartisan credentials and who the media seemed to actually like. The party is in no mood to hear that they should vote for someone because they are “electable.”

And there’s another reason this is an ill-considered defense of his (still theoretical) candidacy. Giuliani had no other options because he was pro-choice. That’s not true with Christie. While I tend to think Giuliani was more conservative than he’s often given credit for, the abortion issue is generally a disqualifier for too much of the party. Giuliani was reduced to arguing that he could win, and that once he did, he’d surround himself in office with conservatives.

Not only is the “electability” argument unconvincing to GOP voters, but Christie shouldn’t have to pitch himself as a compromise candidate. Moreover, in doing so Christie is validating accusations that he isn’t a conservative–accusations he’ll have to push back against if he wants the GOP nomination.

To be fair, the Time report mentions that Christie did trumpet his record in office, specifically taking on teachers unions and his efforts to reduce New Jersey’s deficit. Ironically, Christie’s combative approach may actually be a hindrance to his conservative posturing. He styles himself a straight-talker who doesn’t pander or owe anyone an explanation. The very idea of him having to justify his credibility is dismissed with a wave of his hand.

But that stubbornness could prove costly in a GOP primary. Saying something to the effect of “I can win” won’t convince conservative voters, nor should it. The Republican Party is (mostly) out of power and in the midst of a major generational transition from party elders to a new crop of congressmen and governors. Electability is important, but it’s not a statement of principles or the forging of an identity. And it’s a claim the GOP base is tired of hearing.


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