Commentary Magazine


Topic: Chris Christie

Is Schweitzer the Dems’ Chris Christie?

At a 2007 event in Jacksonville, Florida for his presidential primary campaign, Fred Thompson offered a version of a line he used repeatedly when campaigning in the South: “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it to be back somewhere that they don’t think I talk with a funny accent.” (I vaguely remember hearing an even better version, in which he responded to a question about who his constituency was supposed to be by quipping that to many Republican voters, he was the only candidate in the race who spoke without an accent.)

The line worked because that year the better-known GOP candidates were from Massachusetts (Mitt Romney), New York (Rudy Giuliani), and Arizona (John McCain). But it would strike a chord in either party; in 2007, the three most recent Democratic presidents were Bill Clinton (Arkansas), Jimmy Carter (Georgia), and Lyndon Johnson (Texas). Yet beyond the specific issue of accents, politicians from coastal enclaves often struggle to relate to Middle America. And that’s why former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer might just make some trouble for Hillary Clinton in 2016–in part because of the possible presence in the race of, as Jonathan noted earlier, the California gadfly Jerry Brown.

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At a 2007 event in Jacksonville, Florida for his presidential primary campaign, Fred Thompson offered a version of a line he used repeatedly when campaigning in the South: “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it to be back somewhere that they don’t think I talk with a funny accent.” (I vaguely remember hearing an even better version, in which he responded to a question about who his constituency was supposed to be by quipping that to many Republican voters, he was the only candidate in the race who spoke without an accent.)

The line worked because that year the better-known GOP candidates were from Massachusetts (Mitt Romney), New York (Rudy Giuliani), and Arizona (John McCain). But it would strike a chord in either party; in 2007, the three most recent Democratic presidents were Bill Clinton (Arkansas), Jimmy Carter (Georgia), and Lyndon Johnson (Texas). Yet beyond the specific issue of accents, politicians from coastal enclaves often struggle to relate to Middle America. And that’s why former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer might just make some trouble for Hillary Clinton in 2016–in part because of the possible presence in the race of, as Jonathan noted earlier, the California gadfly Jerry Brown.

I say “make some trouble” because it’s not as though Schweitzer would be a juggernaut in a primary. He doesn’t have the name recognition of the others, and it’s doubtful his fundraising could keep pace with well-known candidates from California and New York. Additionally, in the Democratic Party coastal elitism sells, so Schweitzer may not have an advantage even if he can come across as the “normal” candidate. (And let’s be honest: if your opponent is known as “Moonbeam” Brown, you’d better come across as the normal candidate.)

In fact, the case can be made that Schweitzer would be more like the Democratic version of Chris Christie: perhaps too moderate for the base despite that crossover appeal’s advantage in a general election. Schweitzer’s moderation comes on an issue of new resonance to the Democratic Party’s base but on which they stand opposed to public opinion: gun rights.

Schweitzer’s support for gun rights was, once upon a time, part of what made him seem a dream candidate for Democrats–that combined with the fact that after Al Gore and John Kerry, the Democrats were worried they had nothing but self-serious, humorless, and completely unlikeable candidates to offer in national elections. In 2006, the New York Times’s profile of Schweitzer captured this dynamic perfectly. It began:

It’s fun being governor of Montana. Just watch Brian Schweitzer bouncing around the streets of Helena in the passenger seat of the state’s official S.U.V., fumbling with wires, trying to stick the flashing police light on the roof. When he spots some legislators on the sidewalk, he blasts them with the siren, then summons them by name on the loudspeaker. The men jump, and the governor tumbles out of the car, doubled in laughter, giving everyone a bear hug or a high-five or a soft slap on the cheek. Schweitzer, a Democrat in his first term, marches into a barroom in blue jeans and cowboy boots and a beaded bolo tie, and his border collie, Jag, leaps out of the vehicle and follows him in. The governor throws back a few pints of the local brew and introduces himself to everyone in the place, down to the servers and a small girl stuck there with her parents. He takes time from the backslapping to poach cubes of cheese from the snack platter and sneak them to the girl, who is now chasing his dog around the bar. “This is how you make friends with Jag,” he advises her. “Just hold it in your hand and let him take it.”

As soon as Schweitzer was elected in 2004 — the same night that George W. Bush carried Montana by 20 percentage points — pundits began declaring him the future of the Democratic Party. Never mind that it was his first elected office: the 51-year-old farmer and irrigation contractor had folksy charm and true-grit swagger. He shot guns, rode horses, took his dog to work and decimated his opponents with off-the-cuff one-liners heavy on the bull-and-horse metaphors. He didn’t act like a Democrat, in other words, and to many Democrats, reeling from consecutive losses to Bush, that seemed like a pretty good thing.

Schweitzer himself seems to view his support for gun rights as not just cultural, but ideological: National Journal calls his worldview a “brand of libertarian populism.” This certainly overstates the case: the same article even starts off with a riff on Schweitzer’s support for single-payer health care. But this does get at why Schweitzer would be a reasonably effective general-election candidate. In today’s Democratic Party, he is considered “libertarian,” underlining just how far to the left the Democrats have shifted as a national party.

That ideology would be a pleasant contrast with Hillary Clinton’s baldly statist impulses (“there isn’t really any such thing as someone else’s child,” etc.), and with Moonbeam Brown’s failed-state bureaucracy. And to many voters, he’d also be the only one without an accent.

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The New Paul Ryan Is the Old Paul Ryan

Following the release of the budget deal Paul Ryan agreed to with Patty Murray, there will be talk of a shift in Ryan’s political principles. The deal is being framed by its authors as a model of pragmatism, which is a good indication that it will conform to the belief that a fair deal is one from which both sides come away equally unhappy.

Policywise, it certainly deviates from Ryan’s past budgets, and in fact there is plenty in this deal for conservatives to dislike–so much, in fact, that it gives us a clue as to why a seemingly pointless deal would be struck by the right’s generally bold reformer. The Politico story on the deal, headlined “The new Paul Ryan,” offers an opening set of paragraphs that manage to get virtually everything wrong, aside from the one kernel of truth smothered by the confusion:

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Following the release of the budget deal Paul Ryan agreed to with Patty Murray, there will be talk of a shift in Ryan’s political principles. The deal is being framed by its authors as a model of pragmatism, which is a good indication that it will conform to the belief that a fair deal is one from which both sides come away equally unhappy.

Policywise, it certainly deviates from Ryan’s past budgets, and in fact there is plenty in this deal for conservatives to dislike–so much, in fact, that it gives us a clue as to why a seemingly pointless deal would be struck by the right’s generally bold reformer. The Politico story on the deal, headlined “The new Paul Ryan,” offers an opening set of paragraphs that manage to get virtually everything wrong, aside from the one kernel of truth smothered by the confusion:

The new Paul Ryan emerged this week.

The House Budget Committee chairman, who has spent years penning budgets fit for conservatives’ dreams, has morphed into a man willing to take modest steps.

The two-year budget agreement he rolled out with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) Tuesday evening is striking for its simplicity: It cuts the deficits by $23 billion, sets new higher spending levels for the next two years and replaces automatic spending cuts set to take effect in 2014.

But in abandoning his years-long quest to re-imagine American society and settling for a bipartisan deal, the Wisconsin Republican took the first steps to emerge as a House power center — a Republican willing to take baby steps to curb the nation’s trillions in debt, normalize the budget process and protect a Pentagon pilloried by cuts.

This is not a “new Paul Ryan,” but the kernel of truth is buried in that fourth paragraph in reference to Ryan emerging as a “House power center.” He is in fact far from the only “Republican willing to take baby steps to curb the nation’s trillions in debt, normalize the budget process and protect a Pentagon pilloried by cuts”–a fact that explains why conservatives have been so frustrated with their congressional representatives.

More importantly, however, these were absolutely not the “first steps” Ryan is taking toward becoming an institution within an institution, rather than a prospective conservative candidate for president. Ryan may still run for president, of course; though if he wants to do so as a moderate from Wisconsin he’ll have to compete with Chris Christie and Scott Walker, the presumptive favorites of the centrists (Christie) and Wisconsinites (Walker)–who are both superior retail politicians.

The truth is, most of Ryan’s career suggests he wants the gavel, not the veto pen. Such a career path, by definition, requires staying put. So the clearest evidence of Ryan’s aspirations was when he passed on running for the open Senate seat from Wisconsin long before he was asked to join the Romney campaign as vice presidential nominee:

“What matters to me is not the title. It’s my ability to impact policy,” Ryan said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “It would take me, you know, 12 to 16 years in the Senate to get where I am in the House. I don’t want to be in Congress for the rest of my life.”

Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, has gained national prominence in recent months as the budget has become a central issue in Washington. In the last few days, he was contacted by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn about a possible Senate run.

But Ryan told the Journal Sentinel that he was able to make a quick decision because he never wanted to run for Senate. He is in a strong position to become chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee in 2013.

He is not chairman of Ways and Means, but he is quite obviously still the GOP’s point man on budgetary issues as chairman of the Budget Committee. His comment that he wants to impact policy and not be in Congress forever clearly left the door open to other jobs that fit that description–the presidency certainly among them. But Ryan was catapulted to the national stage in 2012 when he joined Romney’s ticket. He did not run for president himself that year, despite numerous entreaties from supporters on the right.

Yet his presence on that ticket did raise the prospect of having to make a choice. He was popular among conservative voters and donors, and had a certain claim to first-tier status as a presidential candidate if he wanted it since he served as the vice presidential nominee in the last cycle. Suddenly, he was presented with the opportunity to claim inheritance of the party’s “standard-bearer” designation, if not the next in line (which used to be an advantage in the GOP, but the very concept now raises suspicion on the right for its presumption of entitlement–and rightly so).

This budget deal was not negotiated by the New Paul Ryan. It was a natural step for the Old Paul Ryan to take because while it wasn’t in line with his other recent budgets, it follows his desire to shape the country’s fiscal course, which he likely considered the first casualty to the prevailing congressional stalemate. It was, however, his first such move since the 2012 presidential election. There is much consistency to Ryan’s compromise, which suggests his heart was with the gavel all along.

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Christie and the RGA: Analyze This

Rarely are Republican Governors Association chairmanships as complex and overanalyzed as Chris Christie’s promises to be. Thanks to a confluence of circumstances, the New Jersey governor’s every action as RGA head now is assumed to be about something else entirely. The phrase “proxy war” is hovering above his young tenure at the RGA, but it’s not always immediately clear which proxy war his actions are conducting.

For example, one gubernatorial race on next year’s calendar is New York’s, where Andrew Cuomo will try to win a second term. The state GOP seems unlikely to put up a candidate who could make the race competitive, and Christie recently met with one prospective GOP nominee, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino. Someone told the New York Post’s Fred Dicker that, apparently, Christie was ready to back Astorino against Cuomo. Thus, as Dicker said, next year would provide the first real “Battle between Gov. Cuomo and Chris Christie.”

According to this story line, the possible Cuomo-Astorino race would be a proxy fight between Cuomo and Christie. But Cuomo immediately insisted that, in fact, Christie told him he would not back Cuomo’s opponent. Dicker reported the supposed about-face (Christie says he’s made no commitment) and quoted a GOP operative complaining about the head of the RGA not fully backing a Republican against a prominent Democrat:

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Rarely are Republican Governors Association chairmanships as complex and overanalyzed as Chris Christie’s promises to be. Thanks to a confluence of circumstances, the New Jersey governor’s every action as RGA head now is assumed to be about something else entirely. The phrase “proxy war” is hovering above his young tenure at the RGA, but it’s not always immediately clear which proxy war his actions are conducting.

For example, one gubernatorial race on next year’s calendar is New York’s, where Andrew Cuomo will try to win a second term. The state GOP seems unlikely to put up a candidate who could make the race competitive, and Christie recently met with one prospective GOP nominee, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino. Someone told the New York Post’s Fred Dicker that, apparently, Christie was ready to back Astorino against Cuomo. Thus, as Dicker said, next year would provide the first real “Battle between Gov. Cuomo and Chris Christie.”

According to this story line, the possible Cuomo-Astorino race would be a proxy fight between Cuomo and Christie. But Cuomo immediately insisted that, in fact, Christie told him he would not back Cuomo’s opponent. Dicker reported the supposed about-face (Christie says he’s made no commitment) and quoted a GOP operative complaining about the head of the RGA not fully backing a Republican against a prominent Democrat:

“Christie already has a problem with many Republicans refusing to forgive him because of his embrace of [President] Obama and his socially liberal policies,’’ said a nationally prominent GOP operative. “But this bizarre behavior in suggesting he won’t help a Republican defeat a Democratic governor, and a Cuomo no less, could finish off his chances of becoming his party’s nominee for president in 2016,’’ the operative continued.

And so a new proxy war entered the picture. Christie’s decision to back or not to back Astorino against Cuomo was really a geographic fight between a parochial Northeastern Republican and the national GOP, increasingly conservative and ever suspicious of its Northeastern brethren (see Romney, Mitt). Yet as Ben Jacobs notes at the Daily Beast, whether or not Christie devotes resources to backing Astorino would be a pretty silly litmus test for his overall motives:

After all, as head of the RGA, Christie can’t openly support any non-incumbent gubernatorial candidate who has yet to win the GOP’s nomination. Further, as even Dicker admits, Astorino doesn’t stand much of a chance in 2014. Any Republican running statewide in New York would face an uphill battle, let alone one running against a popular and well-financed incumbent like Cuomo. Plus, it’s unclear how much help Christie can offer even if the Westchester County Executive gets the Republican nomination.

The playing field for Republican governors in 2014 isn’t very favorable. The RGA will have to defend incumbents who were elected at the crest of the Tea Party wave in 2010, many of whom, like Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett and Florida Governor Rick Scott, are now deeply unpopular. With limited time and resources to devote to any one race, it might seem less than judicious for Christie to target a popular incumbent in the New York media market rather than focus his efforts on close races in swing states.

That last point is important: it’s expensive to compete in New York, and it will be difficult enough for the GOP to come out of the 2014 gubernatorial elections just holding steady, let alone losing some ground if some of these other contests can’t be salvaged.

But that brings up a third proxy war, and the one that seems like the main event: Christie vs. Cuomo for president. Christie is already expected to run in 2016 (hence the second-guessing from within his party), and Cuomo is thought to at least be considering a run. Cuomo’s decision will probably hinge on whether or not Hillary Clinton runs. If she does jump in the race, which she appears eager to do, a Cuomo decision might wait until some internal polling gets done. Clinton may want to clear the field because she thinks she’ll win anyway, but recent polling suggests she wants to clear the field because she would be far from inevitable if she had any competition.

But Christie surely doesn’t see this as a proxy fight between the two governors. Just as Christie would be mistaken to spend up precious resources fighting for New York as head of the RGA, so too would he be mistaken to spend political capital by hitching his wagon to an unknown underdog when he doesn’t have to. Nor would Christie want to earn the ire of New Yorkers if he can avoid it, since if he runs for president he’ll want New York’s delegates in the primary contest and he’ll want to force the eventual Democratic nominee to have to compete in the Northeast in the general election in states they would have won anyway, just to try to expand the map and spoil Democratic intentions to force the GOP to waste resources defending states like Texas.

And so it’s likely that those overanalyzing Christie’s every step are probably wasting their own time and energy for now. But it does offer some indication of the degree of scrutiny Christie can expect now that, as head of the RGA, he’s officially stepping into a national leadership role.

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Scott Walker and the Fight for the Center

The week after Election Day earlier this month belonged to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. But last week belonged to another Republican governor: Scott Walker. Walker was unleashed on the Sunday shows and in the days that followed it was hard to avoid the Wisconsin governor on television as he pitched his new book Unintimidated, that tells the story of his successful battle against union thugs and their political enablers. The book tour reinforced the rumors that have been percolating in Republican circles since he beat liberals who sought to recall him in June of 2012 that Walker was interested in the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. And, as I wrote last week, the governor wasn’t shy about volunteering himself for the job. The question is: has the PR effort on his behalf put him into the conversation for 2016 and if so, who benefits and who has the most to lose from his heightened prominence?

The definitive answer as to whether Walker is now in the mix for 2016 came not from a Republican source but from liberals. As Politico reports, American Bridge, a Democratic proxy group that is geared to help clear the way for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, took its first shot at Walker claiming that his goals for creating jobs in Wisconsin haven’t been met. Walker, who criticized Clinton as a product of a dysfunctional Washington political culture, has clearly gotten under the Democrats’ skin. Like Christie, who got his first volleys of criticism from the mainstream media after a year of praise once he started tiptoeing toward the presidency, Walker is now viewed as a Republican Democrats are more than a little worried about.

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The week after Election Day earlier this month belonged to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. But last week belonged to another Republican governor: Scott Walker. Walker was unleashed on the Sunday shows and in the days that followed it was hard to avoid the Wisconsin governor on television as he pitched his new book Unintimidated, that tells the story of his successful battle against union thugs and their political enablers. The book tour reinforced the rumors that have been percolating in Republican circles since he beat liberals who sought to recall him in June of 2012 that Walker was interested in the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. And, as I wrote last week, the governor wasn’t shy about volunteering himself for the job. The question is: has the PR effort on his behalf put him into the conversation for 2016 and if so, who benefits and who has the most to lose from his heightened prominence?

The definitive answer as to whether Walker is now in the mix for 2016 came not from a Republican source but from liberals. As Politico reports, American Bridge, a Democratic proxy group that is geared to help clear the way for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, took its first shot at Walker claiming that his goals for creating jobs in Wisconsin haven’t been met. Walker, who criticized Clinton as a product of a dysfunctional Washington political culture, has clearly gotten under the Democrats’ skin. Like Christie, who got his first volleys of criticism from the mainstream media after a year of praise once he started tiptoeing toward the presidency, Walker is now viewed as a Republican Democrats are more than a little worried about.

The reason why they should be worried about Walker became clear in the non-stop interviews he gave last week. While he had been demonized by the left as an extremist during his fight to reform Wisconsin’s budget process and his efforts to prevent unions from bankrupting the state, the real Scott Walker is a politician who is not easily categorized.

While reliably pro-life, Walker made no effort to hide the fact that he is not interested in running on issues dear to the hearts of social conservatives. Moreover, while he was one of the Tea Party’s original favorites, he also made no bones about his dismay about the government shutdown, which he denounced as a destructive maneuver. The fact that Rand Paul has recently said the same thing about an effort that he was part of shows just how unpopular the ill-conceived kamikaze charge led by Ted Cruz has become even on the right.

Walker also wisely stayed on message over the course of the week and refused to be drawn into any controversies about issues that didn’t relate to his reform efforts or his message about how can-do GOP governors offer the nation a clear alternative to D.C. dysfunction. Like Christie, who has largely done the same thing this past month, Walker won’t be able to stay out of the line of fire on issues like immigration or foreign policy indefinitely. But with his reelection in Wisconsin his first priority, there’s no question that he has put down a marker as a potential candidate to be reckoned with.

Walker’s first concerted attempt to inject himself into the national political conversation shows the strength of the Republican bench. The party is rightly pleased with a lineup of successful governors of whom Christie is the most famous but not necessarily the most loved by the party faithful. The subtext of the Christiemania that afflicted the media in November was that although the New Jersey governor was the Republican with the best chance to win the votes of independents and moderate Democrats in November 2016, the animus felt toward him by the Tea Party and other conservatives would doom any effort to win the GOP nomination. But that wasn’t entirely correct. If Christie were to have the center to himself in the 2016 Republican contest, the odds are he could win the nod no matter how much the right hated him in much the same manner that moderates like Mitt Romney and John McCain did in 2012 and 2008.

That’s where Walker comes in. As his statements last week demonstrated, though some in the media only think of him in terms of his battle with the left, the governor combines reformist conservative ideology with stands on other issues that place him very much in the center of his party. While the gaggle of candidates competing for Tea Party and social conservative votes may cancel each other out in 2016 as they did in 2012, it now appears that Walker and Christie will be facing off for the voters who gave the nomination to Romney. But since Walker seems to be better liked by those conservatives who abhor Christie for hugging Obama and winning in a blue state, that might make him a far more formidable contender to lead the Republicans than the man who was lampooned as a fat elephant on the cover of Time magazine.

Time will tell whether Walker will stand up to scrutiny in the same way that Christie will be forced to endure years of coverage not as the iconoclast running New Jersey but as the guy who wants to deny Hillary Clinton the presidency. And he also has to first win reelection this year in a state that will never give him the kind of landslide that launched Christie into the political stratosphere this month. While Democrats are already starting to prepare to take out Walker, it’s Christie who should be worried the most about his star turn.

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Adelson’s Internet Gambling Crusade

At first glance, there’s little doubt that most of the people who love to hate Sheldon Adelson are going to assume that he’s in it strictly for the money or to pursue some conservative agenda. But the more you look at it, the casino mogul’s new cause is not one that seems to directly advance either his financial interests or the political or Jewish causes that are close to his heart. Thus, the news reported first last week by the Washington Post that Adelson is going all in on an effort to ban Internet gambling is puzzling his chorus of detractors as well as some of his usual allies. Indeed, most in the gaming industry oppose his efforts, as do many Republicans like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who might otherwise look to him for support. But Adelson, who is launching the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling and prepared to back it with his $20-plus billion personal fortune, is convinced that he can change the nation’s mind about the topic. As Forbes notes, Adelson’s initiative comes at a time when:

For the first time most of the U.S gambling interests—from the casinos to the horse track owners, state lotteries and Native American tribes, appear to be starting to coalesce around a pro-online gambling position. Adelson’s effort will likely rip apart the American Gaming Association, the casino industry’s lobbying group in Washington.

With online gambling now legal in Nevada, Delaware, and in New Jersey (as of today) and with 12 states set to consider it in the near future, the odds against Adelson’s initiative are long. But whether he is able to stop or even slow down the race of state governments to cash in on what they believe will be a windfall, the billionaire happens to be in the right. The spread of gambling on personal computers and smart phones will not only harm his industry but cause untold societal damage, especially to the poor.

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At first glance, there’s little doubt that most of the people who love to hate Sheldon Adelson are going to assume that he’s in it strictly for the money or to pursue some conservative agenda. But the more you look at it, the casino mogul’s new cause is not one that seems to directly advance either his financial interests or the political or Jewish causes that are close to his heart. Thus, the news reported first last week by the Washington Post that Adelson is going all in on an effort to ban Internet gambling is puzzling his chorus of detractors as well as some of his usual allies. Indeed, most in the gaming industry oppose his efforts, as do many Republicans like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who might otherwise look to him for support. But Adelson, who is launching the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling and prepared to back it with his $20-plus billion personal fortune, is convinced that he can change the nation’s mind about the topic. As Forbes notes, Adelson’s initiative comes at a time when:

For the first time most of the U.S gambling interests—from the casinos to the horse track owners, state lotteries and Native American tribes, appear to be starting to coalesce around a pro-online gambling position. Adelson’s effort will likely rip apart the American Gaming Association, the casino industry’s lobbying group in Washington.

With online gambling now legal in Nevada, Delaware, and in New Jersey (as of today) and with 12 states set to consider it in the near future, the odds against Adelson’s initiative are long. But whether he is able to stop or even slow down the race of state governments to cash in on what they believe will be a windfall, the billionaire happens to be in the right. The spread of gambling on personal computers and smart phones will not only harm his industry but cause untold societal damage, especially to the poor.

Internet gambling was deemed illegal by the federal government up until an opinion handed down in 2011 by the Justice Department made it possible. That led both most casinos and other potential gambling venues to get behind efforts to get the states to legalize such businesses. Politicians like Christie, eager for more revenue to balance their budgets without having to cut more services or to raise taxes, also look at it as a way to obtain free money. They also think it will help bolster gambling havens like Atlantic City that are suffering from the proliferation of legal casinos around the country. They point out that Internet gambling already exists via offshore sites that attempt to skirt the laws and that there is no reason for states not to cash in and take their share. Adelson’s numerous opponents also point to his own record as a casino owner and his onetime interest in Internet gambling as proof that his moral concerns are hypocritical.

But whether he is tilting against windmills or not, Adelson is right to try and facilitate a debate about the social costs of this trend before it is too late.

Gambling, whether at destination resorts like the ones Adelson owns in Las Vegas and Macao, or via state lotteries, is generally depicted in the media—and in the flood of advertisements perpetually seeking to entice people to gamble—as entertainment with no down sides for society. It is that for many Americans, but we don’t hear enough about how this supposedly harmless vice destroys countless families and lives. Wherever legal gambling flourishes, it generates a lot of work for bankruptcy lawyers and sets off waves of crime as debt-ridden gamblers resort to thievery and embezzlement. Every conceivable social pathology comes in its wake and though governments profit at one end with their large take of the cut, they pay for it in many other ways that have to do with the damage done to those destroyed by gambling.

The odds of winning in state lotteries are so astronomical that they are in effect a tax on stupidity. They would be considered scams were anyone but the government operating them. But the low cost of tickets makes it harder for gambling addicts to ruin themselves with it. Similarly, however great the toll of suffering due to legal casinos may be, its impact is limited by the fact that going to such a place is not an impulse decision but rather a planned excursion.

But once high-stakes gambling becomes something you can play on your phone, the stakes for society will increase exponentially. Scoff at sermons about the evils of gambling preached by a casino owner all you like. But Adelson’s right that once this spreads across the country, it will sink the nation in a new wave of addiction whose costs will be incalculable.

So far, Adelson’s group, which is being fronted by a bipartisan trio of retired politicians—Republican former New York Governor George Pataki, former Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, and former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb—has been met with skepticism as was evident when the three were grilled this morning by Chuck Todd on his MSNBC program. Trying to convince Americans that more legal gambling is wrong—a proposition that might have appealed to previous generations—may be like trying to put the genie back in the bottle. But unlike casinos and state lotteries which are off limits for kids, Internet gambling will also likely victimize children who have access to smart phones with little assurance that regulations will make this impossible. As such, Adelson’s group may be right to say that this could be like the “Joe Camel” moment when the nation turned on cigarette advertising because of the way it exploited children and created lifetime addictions.

Liberals who care about the way gambling singles out the poor ought to be on his side. So, too, should conservatives who claim to care about communal values as well as those who understand that the answer to the question of how to finance big government should be found in lower expenditures, not soaking middle-class and poor gambling addicts.

With many Republicans and most of the gaming industry against him, it’s not clear that all the money in Adelson’s deep pockets will be enough to prevent more states from following New Jersey’s example. Nor are the odds in favor of his attempt to get federal legislation to close the legal Internet gambling sites down. But even if all he’s able to do is to raise awareness of the grievous social costs of this scourge, it will have been worth it. I doubt that this will improve his image in a mainstream media that despises Adelson for his support for conservatives and deprecates his backing for Israel’s Likud government. But whatever you may think of his politics, Adelson’s stand deserves respect and support.

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Governor for President? Walker Volunteers.

On Friday, I wrote about the theory put forward by House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy that a good president must first have been a governor of a state. His point was that Barack Obama’s inability to govern effectively is directly related to his lack of experience running anything but his mouth. I looked back at the bios of the 43 men who have been president and discovered that history’s verdict on this theory is inconclusive. Some of our greatest presidents have been governors: Thomas Jefferson, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. But some have also had no such experience—including arguably the two greatest in George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The same is true of the list of our worst presidents. I have two words for anyone who thinks being a governor guarantees success in the Oval Office: Jimmy Carter. While the complexity of the modern presidency and the enormous size of the government argue for the value of executive experience, leadership, not a resume, should be the priority.

But one possible Republican candidate for president doesn’t see this question in terms of shades of grey. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was profiled on ABC’s This Week this morning and left no doubt about his own interest in the presidency as well as in the fact that he thinks not being a governor is a deal breaker for Republicans looking for a 2016 standard-bearer. When asked about who should lead the GOP, he didn’t pull any punches:

I think its got to be an outsider, I think both the presidential and vice presidential nomination needs to be a former or current governor, people who have done successful things in their states, taken on big reforms, who are ready to move America forward.

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On Friday, I wrote about the theory put forward by House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy that a good president must first have been a governor of a state. His point was that Barack Obama’s inability to govern effectively is directly related to his lack of experience running anything but his mouth. I looked back at the bios of the 43 men who have been president and discovered that history’s verdict on this theory is inconclusive. Some of our greatest presidents have been governors: Thomas Jefferson, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. But some have also had no such experience—including arguably the two greatest in George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The same is true of the list of our worst presidents. I have two words for anyone who thinks being a governor guarantees success in the Oval Office: Jimmy Carter. While the complexity of the modern presidency and the enormous size of the government argue for the value of executive experience, leadership, not a resume, should be the priority.

But one possible Republican candidate for president doesn’t see this question in terms of shades of grey. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was profiled on ABC’s This Week this morning and left no doubt about his own interest in the presidency as well as in the fact that he thinks not being a governor is a deal breaker for Republicans looking for a 2016 standard-bearer. When asked about who should lead the GOP, he didn’t pull any punches:

I think its got to be an outsider, I think both the presidential and vice presidential nomination needs to be a former or current governor, people who have done successful things in their states, taken on big reforms, who are ready to move America forward.

Asked about senators such as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul, Walker was just as blunt saying the Republican candidate had to be someone “removed from Congress.” Did that also apply to his Wisconsin political ally Paul Ryan? Walker again was not coy. Though he said, “if he [Ryan] had a fan club, I’d be the president of it,” he repeated that the GOP had to put forward a governor even if that meant rejecting in advance any consideration for the House Budget Committee chair and 2012 Republican vice presidential candidate.

While that sets up the Tea Party favorite as a clear alternative to Chris Christie, much of what Walker said in the interview with ABC’s Jon Karl will give little comfort to conservatives who reject the New Jersey governor as too much of a moderate to lead the GOP.

Walker’s talking point about the need for an outsider to reform Washington will resonate on the right that is boiling with discontent at the media surge that lifted Christie to prominence since his landslide reelection last week. But it’s not clear how they will react to his rejection of the Tea Party-led government shutdown. While many conservatives have treated criticism of the disastrous decision to shut down the government as something that only establishment traitors do, Walker dismissed it as counter-productive. Like Christie, Walker thinks Republicans need to make government work, not to sabotage it.

Speaking in this manner is good politics as well as good policy for Walker. The public was disgusted by the shutdown. So, too, are most Republicans who now realize that wasting weeks on a kamikaze attack on ObamaCare was not only futile but it also distracted the country from the administration’s health-care fiasco. While, as with all other 2016 speculation, a lot can happen in the next two years before Republicans start voting, Walker is now positioning himself as a unique character that can draw support from both the GOP establishment and the party’s grass roots.

Walker’s outsider credentials are impeccable. As ABC recalled for its viewers, the Wisconsin governor was liberal public enemy No. 1 in 2011 and 2012 as he made good on his campaign promises and sought to reform his state’s finances by challenging the ability of public worker unions to raid the treasury at will. His counter-attack against the left was successful, and it led to violent attempts by union thugs and their liberal allies to shut down the Wisconsin legislature and to personally intimidate the governor and his family. He persevered and then survived an ill-considered attempt to oust him from office via a recall. All that made him a hero to conservatives and Tea Partiers. Though Christie fought some of the same battles, his reforms did not go as far and he lost much of the goodwill he originally had from conservatives with his embrace of President Obama after Hurricane Sandy.

Where Walker probably won’t be able to outdo Christie will be in the manner of his reelection. Though he is a clear favorite to win next November, Walker won’t be matching Christie’s impressive landslide in a blue state. Where Christie is a candidate who has obvious appeal in a general election, Walker remains someone who appeals more to the Republican base than to independents or moderate Democrats as is the case with Christie.

Even though he is distancing himself from both Congress as well as the Tea Party that helped bring him to prominence, the left’s targeting of Walker renders him largely bulletproof to the “RINO” smears that are routinely launched at any Republican who understands that Ted Cruz’s judgment is not to be trusted. Likewise, Senate conservative firebrands will be hard pressed to knock Walker’s proven record of administrative excellence and courage in standing up to liberal attacks. The plethora of conservative candidates will mean they will be contending against each other for the affection of right-wing activists and voters. Walker’s obvious interest in the presidency also means that Christie will have some formidable competition for centrist Republicans, albeit from a candidate who can count on his share of conservative backers.

Being a governor doesn’t mean Walker or Christie or any other person with that line on their resume is up to the challenges of the presidency. But the unpopularity of Congress in the wake of the shutdown—something that the next budget battle isn’t likely to improve—means that we will be hearing more about a rivalry between these two in the months and years to come.

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What’s the GOP Foreign-Policy Alternative?

Republicans are doing a great job of critiquing the flawed implementation of ObamaCare but a terrible job of critiquing Obama’s flawed foreign policy, even as its failures–for instance, in Syria–become more manifest. This is in large part because Republicans can’t agree among themselves on what the alternative should be: More intervention or less? More defense spending or less?

Into this vacuum comes Rosa Brooks, a liberal law professor and former Obama appointee at the Department of Defense, with a withering critique of Obama’s relations with the U.S. military based on interviews with anonymous generals and officials.

She writes in Politico Magazine:

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Republicans are doing a great job of critiquing the flawed implementation of ObamaCare but a terrible job of critiquing Obama’s flawed foreign policy, even as its failures–for instance, in Syria–become more manifest. This is in large part because Republicans can’t agree among themselves on what the alternative should be: More intervention or less? More defense spending or less?

Into this vacuum comes Rosa Brooks, a liberal law professor and former Obama appointee at the Department of Defense, with a withering critique of Obama’s relations with the U.S. military based on interviews with anonymous generals and officials.

She writes in Politico Magazine:

Most of the military leaders I interviewed said they believed that military recommendations often go unheeded by senior White House staff, who now assume that a risk-averse Pentagon exaggerates every difficulty and inflates every request for troops or money. This assumption turns discussions into antagonistic negotiating sessions. As one retired general puts it, “If you said, ‘We need 40,000 troops,’ they’d immediately say, ‘20,000.’ Not because they thought that was the right number, but they just took it for granted that any number coming from the military was inflated.”

“Sometimes you want to tell them, ‘This isn’t a political bargaining process,’” another retired senior military official says ruefully. “Where the military comes in high, they counter low, and we settle on an option that splits the difference. Needless to say, the right answer is not always in the middle.”

A former White House official with Pentagon experience says White House staff often remain willfully uninformed about the logic behind military recommendations: They “don’t want to take the time to go through the slide deck or get the full briefing. Basically, they don’t want to know.”

This strikes me as essentially accurate–it helps to account for the White House’s promotion of an “unbelievably small” airstrike on Syria in the face of military doubts that this would achieve anything. It helps to account, too, for the president’s imposition of a timeline on the Afghanistan surge which military leaders opposed because they knew it would undermine the troops’ effectiveness and embolden the Taliban. Not to mention the president’s failure to do more to renew the mandate of U.S. forces in Iraq, in spite of military urging to be more active. This led to the departure of U.S. troops at the end of 2011, and has allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to be reborn.

And then, of course, there is the White House’s continual failure to cut a deal with Congress that would allow the repeal of sequestration, which is devastating our military readiness. Republicans are at least equally to blame here, but that doesn’t let the president off the hook. Obama, it seems, favors only one type of military action–drone strikes and commando raids–and is prepared to see the larger military wither as long as Special Operations capabilities are kept more or less intact.

There is plenty here for Republicans to criticize. The problem is that Republicans, by and large, have endorsed sequestration; have not endorsed doing more to arm and support the moderate Syrian opposition, which would most likely involve the imposition of a no-fly zone and air strikes; did not speak out loudly in favor of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq; and now are not speaking out in favor of keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The upshot is that U.S. foreign policy and national-security policy are a mess, as even many Democrats admit, and yet there is no viable alternative being offered by the Republican Party, which has somehow managed to forfeit its long-standing advantage on national-security issues. Indeed the loudest voices coming from the GOP are those of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, who call for an isolationism that dare not speak its name. There is a vacuum here that Chris Christie and Jeb Bush and others could conceivably fill, but they need to start speaking up.

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The Flawed Christie-Giuliani Narrative

The political press has picked up the comparison between Chris Christie 2016 and Rudy Giuliani 2008 with gusto. This is a flawed comparison, though one can understand why reporters would be drawn to it. It fits a preexisting narrative and offers superficial similarities. But the problem is not only that the parallels may be weaker than they seem (they almost always are); it’s that the initial frames are wrong to begin with, and the press end up comparing new candidates to former candidates who never really existed.

That’s especially true in Giuliani’s case, since the “first draft of history” written about his campaign is demonstrably false. Yet it has somehow become Giuliani’s story anyway. And it finds its way into even solid stories by knowledgeable reporters. For example, here’s Politico’s latest on the Christie-Rudy comparison. It does a good job debunking many of the supposed similarities, but then we find this, as a red flag:

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The political press has picked up the comparison between Chris Christie 2016 and Rudy Giuliani 2008 with gusto. This is a flawed comparison, though one can understand why reporters would be drawn to it. It fits a preexisting narrative and offers superficial similarities. But the problem is not only that the parallels may be weaker than they seem (they almost always are); it’s that the initial frames are wrong to begin with, and the press end up comparing new candidates to former candidates who never really existed.

That’s especially true in Giuliani’s case, since the “first draft of history” written about his campaign is demonstrably false. Yet it has somehow become Giuliani’s story anyway. And it finds its way into even solid stories by knowledgeable reporters. For example, here’s Politico’s latest on the Christie-Rudy comparison. It does a good job debunking many of the supposed similarities, but then we find this, as a red flag:

There are two constants between Giuliani and Christie – advisers Mike DuHaime and Maria Comella.

DuHaime, Giuliani’s presidential campaign manager, is a senior adviser to Christie since 2009. Comella, a Giuliani presidential campaign press aide, is Christie’s communications director.

DuHaime came under fire for Giuliani’s failed “Florida firewall” strategy, but has since been integral to Christie’s two successful campaigns. Comella is broadly respected and her team has shown the kind of web proficiency necessary in a modern campaign. …

Craig Robinson, a former executive director of the Iowa Republican Party and founder of The Iowa Republican website, argued that Christie’s team needs to show more than they did with Giulian (sic). If they do, he said, “the sky’s the limit” for Christie.

This “Florida firewall” myth has stuck, but it’s just that–a myth. That’s due in large part to Giuliani himself, who wanted to deflect concern about his early primary losses by suggesting he was waiting for Florida to turn the tide. But that’s not actually what happened.

“Rudy Giuliani would bypass early-voting Iowa and New Hampshire on his way to more moderate, voter-rich states like Florida and California, many pundits once predicted,” scoffed the New York Daily News in October 2007. “But a look at the presidential hopeful’s campaign datebook shows the former mayor is hunkering down in the two early battlegrounds far more than in other primary states.”

The Daily News backed up its headline, “Rudy Giuliani defies critics, campaigns hard in early states,” by reporting that Giuliani had spent more time in New Hampshire and Iowa than did John McCain, who eventually went on to win the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. The Daily News was onto something. In January 2008, after the New Hampshire primary in which Giuliani placed fourth, Jake Tapper and Karen Travers reported for ABC News that Giuliani held more events in New Hampshire than McCain, Mike Huckabee, Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton did.

And it wasn’t just events. Giuliani spent millions on television advertising in New Hampshire–almost as much as McCain and more than Huckabee and Ron Paul combined. So what happened? Tapper and Travers explained:

But after a few weeks, when his poll numbers traveled downward instead of in the preferred direction, the former mayor’s campaign said it would stick with his original plan. In December an anonymous “top Giuliani aide” told The Politico newspaper that the new plan would allow the former mayor’s campaign “to marshal our resources for Florida and Feb. 5, while keeping options open for changes in the early states.”

He was competing and still losing, so he told Politico that he wasn’t really trying, that he was waiting for Florida and letting the other candidates tussle over the early states while he built his “firewall.” And so the “Florida firewall” story was ingested by Politico and remains a fixture of Giuliani-related stories to this day.

And now that Christie employs one of the same Giuliani advisors who was an architect of a plan that ultimately stayed on the shelf, the other comparisons between the candidates come alive, as if Christie would–or even could–run the same kind of campaign Giuliani did.

He can’t, though. Giuliani had to lean on 9/11 to a certain degree because he was otherwise incompatible with Republican primary voters. The former mayor ran as a pro-choice Republican. Christie is pro-life. And though Giuliani proved himself on 9/11 to be the kind of leader the country could count on in a crisis, national-security issues just don’t tend to dominate presidential elections.

Overall, the two candidates have major differences on nearly every subject of consequence. Yes, they’re both from the Northeast. But if political reporters can’t tell the difference between candidates because they hail from states near each other, 2016 is going to be a long silly season.

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What Christie Can Teach the Rest of the GOP

Governor Chris Christie’s landslide victory in New Jersey–in which he won by more than 20 percentage points in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 700,000; carried more than half of the Hispanic vote (51 percent) and 21 percent of the African-American vote; won 57 percent of the female vote and 63 percent of the male vote; won every education level and income group; and won nearly a third of the Democratic vote (32 percent) and more than 60 percent of independents (66 percent) and moderates (61 percent)–instantly makes him the early favorite for the 2016 Republican nomination.

With that in mind, it might be worth examining two aspects of his victory speech.

Right at the outset of his speech, Governor Christie framed things this way: “The people of New Jersey four years ago were downhearted and dispirited. They didn’t believe that government could work for them anymore.” 

He went on to say this:

In fact, what they thought was that government was just there to take from them but not to give to them, not to work with them, not to work for them. Well, four years later, we stand here tonight showing that it is possible to put doing your job first, to put working together first, to fight for what you believe in, yet still stand by your principles and get something done for the people who elected you.

The New Jersey governor’s message was not relentlessly anti-government; he is a man who speaks about limited and effective government. That’s an important distinction–and one more Republicans and conservatives need to make. Read More

Governor Chris Christie’s landslide victory in New Jersey–in which he won by more than 20 percentage points in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 700,000; carried more than half of the Hispanic vote (51 percent) and 21 percent of the African-American vote; won 57 percent of the female vote and 63 percent of the male vote; won every education level and income group; and won nearly a third of the Democratic vote (32 percent) and more than 60 percent of independents (66 percent) and moderates (61 percent)–instantly makes him the early favorite for the 2016 Republican nomination.

With that in mind, it might be worth examining two aspects of his victory speech.

Right at the outset of his speech, Governor Christie framed things this way: “The people of New Jersey four years ago were downhearted and dispirited. They didn’t believe that government could work for them anymore.” 

He went on to say this:

In fact, what they thought was that government was just there to take from them but not to give to them, not to work with them, not to work for them. Well, four years later, we stand here tonight showing that it is possible to put doing your job first, to put working together first, to fight for what you believe in, yet still stand by your principles and get something done for the people who elected you.

The New Jersey governor’s message was not relentlessly anti-government; he is a man who speaks about limited and effective government. That’s an important distinction–and one more Republicans and conservatives need to make.

Thirty years ago Irving Kristol wrote, “[The Republican Party] has failed to understand that the idea of limited government is not contradictory to the idea of energetic government or (what comes to the same thing) responsive government.” As it was then, so it remains today.

Governor Christie also spoke in Kempian terms about outreach to non-traditional voters:

And while we may not always agree, we show up everywhere. We just don’t show up in the places that vote for us a lot, we show up in the places that vote for us a little. We don’t just show up in the places where we’re comfortable, we show up in the places where we’re uncomfortable.

Because when you lead, you need to be there. You need to show up, you need to listen and then you need to act. And you don’t just show up six months before an election, you show up four years before one. And you just don’t take no for an answer the first time no has happened. You keep going back and trying more. Because when I was elected four years ago, I wasn’t elected just by the people who voted for me. I was the governor of all the people.

This is a useful corrective to those Republicans and conservatives who believe the success of the party lies in winning larger and larger percentages of a shrinking percentage of the electorate (white voters); who appear inclined to write off large swaths of voters; and who view more and more Americans as “takers,” as dependent on the welfare state and therefore permanently in the camp of the Democratic Party.

Governor Christie showed that the Republican/conservative message, when framed the right way and backed up with genuine achievements, can do pretty well–and in some instances extremely well–in non-traditional demographic groups.

I’m certainly not ready at this stage to say who I believe ought to be the GOP nominee. For one thing, there are plenty of talented and intelligent people who might run. For another, you never know in advance how well, or how poorly, a person will do when running for president. It’s a challenge unlike any other, and (as Rick Perry found out in 2012) being a successful governor doesn’t mean you’re suited to run for higher office.

That said, Governor Christie radiates confidence and competence. He is a commanding presence and possesses considerable skills, a record of achievement, and a smashing reelection victory (in a blue state) to his credit. Republicans would be fools not to look to him and learn from him, to take what worked for him in the Garden State and apply it elsewhere in America. 

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Christie’s Rivals Should Pipe Down

It is to be expected that those who are likely to oppose Chris Christie for the 2016 presidential nomination are not joining in the chorus of hosannas for the New Jersey governor after his landslide reelection on Tuesday. But the transparent nature of the carping being thrown in his direction by some of them is not doing them or their future prospects much good. As Rand Paul, his father Ron, and Marco Rubio proved, sometimes you’re better off not trying to rain on the other guy’s parade even if every fiber of your being is impelling you to do so.

Among the top political viral videos from yesterday was Senator Paul’s rant aimed at Christie during a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee meeting. Picking up the gauntlet thrown down a year ago by Christie about conservatives stalling a Hurricane Sandy relief bill, Paul groused about some of the aid money being spent on tourism ads encouraging people to visit the Jersey Shore in the summer after the disaster. While Paul tried to make an issue about federal aid being spent on ads, his real problem was the fact that the ads featured an appearance by somebody “running for office” (named Chris Christie) and went on to complain about this being a “conflict of interest.” While he might have had a small point, it was lost amid his obvious ill humor at anything that might have done his potential rival a spot of good.

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It is to be expected that those who are likely to oppose Chris Christie for the 2016 presidential nomination are not joining in the chorus of hosannas for the New Jersey governor after his landslide reelection on Tuesday. But the transparent nature of the carping being thrown in his direction by some of them is not doing them or their future prospects much good. As Rand Paul, his father Ron, and Marco Rubio proved, sometimes you’re better off not trying to rain on the other guy’s parade even if every fiber of your being is impelling you to do so.

Among the top political viral videos from yesterday was Senator Paul’s rant aimed at Christie during a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee meeting. Picking up the gauntlet thrown down a year ago by Christie about conservatives stalling a Hurricane Sandy relief bill, Paul groused about some of the aid money being spent on tourism ads encouraging people to visit the Jersey Shore in the summer after the disaster. While Paul tried to make an issue about federal aid being spent on ads, his real problem was the fact that the ads featured an appearance by somebody “running for office” (named Chris Christie) and went on to complain about this being a “conflict of interest.” While he might have had a small point, it was lost amid his obvious ill humor at anything that might have done his potential rival a spot of good.

Let’s specify that the practice of incumbent governors, including those running for reelection, appearing on their state’s tourism ads is a bit cheesy. But it is something that virtually all of them do and few people have ever bothered to complain about it. But for Paul to claim that trying to convince people in neighboring states that generally spend part of their summers at New Jersey’s beach and boardwalk towns that the region had recovered sufficiently from the hurricane was a waste of federal aid dollars is a weak argument. Taken altogether, the sour manner in which Paul lashed out at Christie didn’t hurt the governor and only made the senator, who has been taking shots over alleged plagiarism charges lately, look like a sore loser.

The same could be said of Paul’s father going on Fox News to predict that all the praise being thrown Christie’s way was pointless because he was just another “McCain and Romney.” That’ll be a talking point for Christie’s opponents in 2016, but does anyone—even the most hardcore libertarian Paulbots—think Christie is, as the elder Paul says, “wishy washy?” That kind of rhetoric is not likely to persuade many conservatives to vote for his son Rand.

Just as awkward was the dance that Marco Rubio tried to do when asked about Christie by Dana Bash on CNN yesterday. Unlike the Pauls, Rubio tried hard not to sound like a jerk. He congratulated Christie, praised him as a tough competitor, and said he has a good relationship with him and likes the governor. But his attempt to downplay the significance of Christie’s win again was the part of the interview that got the most play and it betrayed the senator’s obvious discomfort at the way Christie has become the national political flavor of the month.

With more than two years to go before a single vote is cast in a Republican primary or caucus, Christie will have plenty of opportunities to flip-flop on a key issue or to display his famously thin skin and hair-trigger temper. But right now, the best thing his GOP rivals can do is to pipe down and let him enjoy the moment. Getting in the middle of the discussion about Christie’s ability to win the votes of demographic sectors that don’t normally vote Republican is an invitation to a bad sound bite for anyone thinking of running against him.

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Can the Tea Party Ever Accept Christie?

Yesterday’s exit polls from New Jersey won’t easily be forgotten. They will be cited and repeated endlessly by pundits and Governor Chris Christie’s supporters to bolster his case for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Any Republican who can get 60 percent of the vote in a blue state is bound to become the subject of presidential speculation. But when a Republican who is pro-life and has fought a running battle with labor unions and Democrats over taxes and budgets does so, he parachutes into the first tier of any discussion of future candidates. That Christie did this while winning a shocking 57 percent of the women’s vote (against a female opponent), 51 percent of Hispanics and 21 percent of African-Americans gives him an almost inarguable case for his electability.

But as the emails and tweets that poured in almost as soon as the results were known showed, there is one sector of the Republican Party that isn’t singing hosannas about Christie’s ability to make inroads in constituencies that Republicans have been losing in recent years. Self-described Tea Partiers and other conservatives were having none of it. As far as they were concerned, the hoopla about Christie’s win was nothing more than the GOP “establishment” anointing another front-runner who was certain to lose in the same manner as previous moderate nominees like John McCain and Mitt Romney. Others were expressing disgust and claiming the party’s base would abandon Christie in 2016, something that would offset his ability to win the votes of independents and moderate Democrats. In their words, Christie was nothing more than a no-good RINO, whose nomination would mark another Republican betrayal of conservatives.

These comments underlined the cautionary remarks being made about Christie’s prospective candidacy this morning. He may be a formidable general-election candidate, but his ability to win Republican primaries remains an open question. Yet rather than merely accepting this piece of conventional wisdom, it might be appropriate to ask why it is that the right is so mad at Christie and whether he can gradually win their support, if not affection, over the course of the next three years.

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Yesterday’s exit polls from New Jersey won’t easily be forgotten. They will be cited and repeated endlessly by pundits and Governor Chris Christie’s supporters to bolster his case for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Any Republican who can get 60 percent of the vote in a blue state is bound to become the subject of presidential speculation. But when a Republican who is pro-life and has fought a running battle with labor unions and Democrats over taxes and budgets does so, he parachutes into the first tier of any discussion of future candidates. That Christie did this while winning a shocking 57 percent of the women’s vote (against a female opponent), 51 percent of Hispanics and 21 percent of African-Americans gives him an almost inarguable case for his electability.

But as the emails and tweets that poured in almost as soon as the results were known showed, there is one sector of the Republican Party that isn’t singing hosannas about Christie’s ability to make inroads in constituencies that Republicans have been losing in recent years. Self-described Tea Partiers and other conservatives were having none of it. As far as they were concerned, the hoopla about Christie’s win was nothing more than the GOP “establishment” anointing another front-runner who was certain to lose in the same manner as previous moderate nominees like John McCain and Mitt Romney. Others were expressing disgust and claiming the party’s base would abandon Christie in 2016, something that would offset his ability to win the votes of independents and moderate Democrats. In their words, Christie was nothing more than a no-good RINO, whose nomination would mark another Republican betrayal of conservatives.

These comments underlined the cautionary remarks being made about Christie’s prospective candidacy this morning. He may be a formidable general-election candidate, but his ability to win Republican primaries remains an open question. Yet rather than merely accepting this piece of conventional wisdom, it might be appropriate to ask why it is that the right is so mad at Christie and whether he can gradually win their support, if not affection, over the course of the next three years.

If we’re looking for ideological differences, it’s hard to pin down what has gotten the Tea Party’s goat about Christie.

Unlike most successful blue-state Republicans, Christie is not a liberal on social issues. He’s pro-life and against gay marriage. And as far as fiscal issues are concerned—supposedly the core issue motivating the Tea Party—he seems to be one of them. He was elected on a platform calling for challenging the status quo on state spending and the influence of municipal and state employee unions and he has followed through on his promises. And though due to the fact that he had to work with a Democratic legislature he wasn’t able to push as far on that issue as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, he has his own list of triumphs that nearly match those won by that Tea Party idol. He defied the unions as well as the federal government to nix a tunnel project that would have sunk the state further in debt.

He did challenge Rand Paul and libertarians on foreign policy and security issues this past summer. But the belief that all Tea Partiers—who were mobilized to action by anger about ObamaCare and the stimulus, not by opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the war on Islamist terror—are uncomfortable with Christie’s support for a traditional strong Republican position on foreign policy and against isolationism is a dubious assumption.

As for immigration, something that is a key Tea Party issue, Christie is vulnerable as he now supports a New Jersey version of the DREAM Act and has reversed his position and endorsed an in-state tuition discount to illegals. But he has nowhere near the exposure on that issue as Marco Rubio. This will be one issue to watch to see if he evolves more toward a pro-immigration reform position or reverts to a more popular (at least as far as Republicans are concerned) opposition to liberalizing the system.

What, then, are they really mad about?

It starts with Christie’s embrace of President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy last year, a move that did the governor a world of political good at home but did nothing to help Mitt Romney’s hopes of an upset. That, along with a Republican National Convention speech that seemed to be all about Christie’s virtues rather than singing Romney’s praises, created a narrative in which the governor is dismissed by the right as a self-seeking opportunist who betrayed his party. That may be true, but if the party is looking for a presidential candidate who isn’t a ruthless opportunist, they need to reject virtually every other presumed candidate, including a Tea Party favorite like Ted Cruz.

Others dig deeper and claim he isn’t a true social conservative because although he opposed gay marriage, he eventually bowed to reality and gave up a hopeless legal appeal when his state Supreme Court indicated it would be rejected. Others claim his approval of a law banning so-called “conversion therapy” of gays also shows he’s a RINO. In other words, we’re talking about a conservative who has pushed the boundaries in his own state without ever betraying his principles to win liberal votes (as Romney did with the pro-abortion stand he adopted while running for office in Massachusetts) but didn’t bow to every dictate of the right.

More to the point, some on the right just don’t like the can-do credo he espouses about making government work even if it means working with Democrats. In this season of government shutdowns, which he rightly opposed, some see this as evidence of a lack of principle, not pragmatism. But what they forget is that Christie’s vaunted bipartisanship operated from a position of strength in which he forced Democrats to operate within his frame of reference of reform, not a weak refusal to upset the applecart.

As for the claim that Christie is yet another moderate Republican who can achieve nothing more than a respectable loss in the manner of McCain or Romney, that seems another dubious assumption. Neither McCain nor Romney was Christie’s equal as a communicator and especially as a retail politician. Nor he is another Northeastern Republican doomed to failure in GOP primaries like Giuliani, whose loss was foreordained by his pro-abortion stand.

There are good reasons to doubt whether Christie can win in 2016. As much as he’s been in the limelight, he has never been tested on the national stage before the way he will be if he runs for president. His thin skin and irascible tough-guy personality is part of his unique everyman charm, but that may not wear as well on a presidential candidate as it does on a governor of New Jersey. There are also the unanswered questions about his health that, despite his disclaimers, cannot be entirely dismissed.

But if we’re looking for reasons why Tea Partiers cannot abide Christie, we have to come to grips with the fact that most of this is more about atmospherics than actual disagreements. While his attitude may turn off some conservatives, his ability to win elections as a conservative must open up for them the possibility that this unique politician may be a chance for Republicans to reverse the liberal tide that Obama has been riding the last several years. As of the moment, that is just speculation. But one suspects that as we get closer to 2016, more conservatives will come to the conclusion that they much prefer dealing with his faults than contemplating eight years of a Hillary Clinton presidency.

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The Revenge of Politics

Searching for an overarching cause of the result in last night’s Virginia gubernatorial election is going to consist mostly of Democrats and Republicans talking past each other. That’s because, to some degree, they are both right. ObamaCare’s disastrous rollout was not enough to doom Terry McAuliffe, but neither was his victory an affirmation that ObamaCare poses no real political risk to Democrats. Likewise, it seems the government shutdown hurt Ken Cuccinelli, but not enough to make Tea Party conservatism toxic in the swing state of Virginia.

Additionally, neither contender was viewed as a particularly good candidate, making it unrealistic for those on the left and right to try to make either candidate a stand-in for his national party. (Democrats seem to consider McAuliffe an embarrassment even in victory, and for good reason.) But in fact this lack of an overarching theme is a theme in itself. That is, politics–party and individual, national and local–and not ideology offers a pretty simple explanation both for the election in Virginia and the one in New Jersey, in which Republican Chris Christie won reelection in a landslide in a heavily Democratic state. Bergen County Record columnist Charles Stile explains in a lengthy, but eminently worthwhile column how Christie cruised to victory:

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Searching for an overarching cause of the result in last night’s Virginia gubernatorial election is going to consist mostly of Democrats and Republicans talking past each other. That’s because, to some degree, they are both right. ObamaCare’s disastrous rollout was not enough to doom Terry McAuliffe, but neither was his victory an affirmation that ObamaCare poses no real political risk to Democrats. Likewise, it seems the government shutdown hurt Ken Cuccinelli, but not enough to make Tea Party conservatism toxic in the swing state of Virginia.

Additionally, neither contender was viewed as a particularly good candidate, making it unrealistic for those on the left and right to try to make either candidate a stand-in for his national party. (Democrats seem to consider McAuliffe an embarrassment even in victory, and for good reason.) But in fact this lack of an overarching theme is a theme in itself. That is, politics–party and individual, national and local–and not ideology offers a pretty simple explanation both for the election in Virginia and the one in New Jersey, in which Republican Chris Christie won reelection in a landslide in a heavily Democratic state. Bergen County Record columnist Charles Stile explains in a lengthy, but eminently worthwhile column how Christie cruised to victory:

Christie’s bold leadership during Superstorm Sandy, the shrewd marketing of his Jersey tough guy persona and several important legislative accomplishments are indeed important factors in the strong support for his reelection. But while the public was seeing all of that, Christie discreetly and methodically courted Democrats with every lever of power at his disposal. By the end, many of those Democrats would supply the manpower, money or simply the photo ops for his campaign.

Long before Buono entered a race that no other Democratic contender wanted to come near, Christie had already won the campaign. While the cameras and the social-media feeds and the political pundits focused on Christie’s forceful personality, his often over-the-top comments and his welcoming embrace of President Obama after Sandy, Christie was planting the seeds for his own reelection, Demo­cratic mayor by Democratic mayor, Democratic boss by Democratic boss, Demo­cratic union leader by Democratic union leader. As the ancient Chinese military tome “The Art of War” noted, “Every battle is won before it is fought.”

That was only part of it, of course. Christie’s work to recruit Democrats to his campaign certainly helped, but his interactions with constituents were crucial to his reelection. Outside New Jersey, he is known for his made-for-YouTube confrontations. But within the state, far more powerful are the conversations Christie has with voters that aren’t YouTube-friendly.

Christie simply worked hard to make sure he was heard all around the state, and refused to accept the premise that there were any voters he couldn’t convince if given the chance. As the New York Times reports in its recap of Christie’s victory:

For example, he won over Michael Blunt, a black Democrat and mayor of Chesilhurst, a largely black borough in South Jersey, with relentless wooing. Mr. Blunt, who recalled how Mr. Christie held a town hall in his community, steered more municipal aid to it and invited him to a Juneteenth celebration, marking the end of slavery, at the State House, impressing him with his knowledge of the holiday. And the governor invited black elected officials to Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion near Princeton, and told them how a black friend in college took him to a historically black campus to demonstrate how it felt to be in the minority.

“If a person has no problem going in enemy territory to explain his policies, that person we really need to look at,” said Mr. Blunt, who was a delegate for Mr. Obama last year.

Christie won over numerous left-leaning voters not with slogans but with classic rope-line politics. As a skilled practitioner of local politics, Christie was able to keep national politics at bay–something neither McAuliffe nor Cuccinelli was able to do.

On this point, Politico’s piece on the “six takeaways” from the Virginia race is instructive. Briefly, here are reporter James Hohmann’s six lessons, though the article is worth reading in full for Hohmann’s explanation of each:

  • Obamacare almost killed McAuliffe.

  • Cuccinelli might have won if he had more money.

  • It was a base election.

  • The gender gap mirrored the presidential.

  • Obama himself was a mixed bag.

  • The shutdown still hurt Republicans.

Two of those stand out immediately as national issues: the government shutdown hurting Cuccinelli and ObamaCare hurting McAuliffe. The fact that it was a base election, according to Hohmann, would seem to indicate that the two candidates failed precisely where Christie succeeded: convincing the unconvinced. The “gender gap” is a complicated, but obviously national issue in the context of whether it “mirrored the presidential.”

And why might Cuccinelli have won with more money? In large part because he would have been able to run more ads and compete with the negative advertising blitz that McAuliffe was able to purchase with help from big-money, out of town, national politicians (like the Clintons, who were absent from the Jersey race, and Michael Bloomberg).

Members of the House of Representatives are rarely immune from public mood swings. Governors can be, but the Virginia gubernatorial election is a reminder of how easily a statewide race can be nationalized in such a media-saturated environment.

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Get Ready for Christie Bashing

It is a cliché that failure is a better test of a person’s character than success. Like most clichés, there’s a lot of truth in this one. But as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is about to find out, there are certain kinds of success that bring with it even sterner tests than he might have faced had his career not been on the upward trajectory that it currently finds itself.

At this point, it seems certain that Christie’s landslide reelection tonight will be the start of a long run toward 2016 in which the governor will attempt to build on the idea that his triumphs in New Jersey are a harbinger of what he and his party can achieve on a national stage. But, as I first noted on Sunday, this will mean that his current status as the shining example of a reasonable, effective, and electable Republican in which he has been held up as an alternative to the Tea Party will probably change as far as much of the media is concerned. Once the dust settles from tonight’s celebration and probably even before that, taking down Christie may well replace attacks on Ted Cruz as the idée fixe of liberal journalists and pundits.

An earlier indication of that is the scuttlebutt coming out the new political book Double Down about the Mitt Romney camp’s vetting of Christie as a vice presidential candidate as well as Politico’s piece today alleging that the governor has a “tax problem.” The point is, the love that Christie has been getting from the mainstream media, while the right was blasting him for embracing President Obama after Hurricane Sandy or for criticizing House Republicans, is coming to an end as he transitions to being the most likely member of the GOP to replace the president.

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It is a cliché that failure is a better test of a person’s character than success. Like most clichés, there’s a lot of truth in this one. But as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is about to find out, there are certain kinds of success that bring with it even sterner tests than he might have faced had his career not been on the upward trajectory that it currently finds itself.

At this point, it seems certain that Christie’s landslide reelection tonight will be the start of a long run toward 2016 in which the governor will attempt to build on the idea that his triumphs in New Jersey are a harbinger of what he and his party can achieve on a national stage. But, as I first noted on Sunday, this will mean that his current status as the shining example of a reasonable, effective, and electable Republican in which he has been held up as an alternative to the Tea Party will probably change as far as much of the media is concerned. Once the dust settles from tonight’s celebration and probably even before that, taking down Christie may well replace attacks on Ted Cruz as the idée fixe of liberal journalists and pundits.

An earlier indication of that is the scuttlebutt coming out the new political book Double Down about the Mitt Romney camp’s vetting of Christie as a vice presidential candidate as well as Politico’s piece today alleging that the governor has a “tax problem.” The point is, the love that Christie has been getting from the mainstream media, while the right was blasting him for embracing President Obama after Hurricane Sandy or for criticizing House Republicans, is coming to an end as he transitions to being the most likely member of the GOP to replace the president.

Instead of basking in the adoration of his fans on YouTube, the coming months and years will find Christie increasingly in the cross-hairs of a liberal media that is hoping that someone like Ted Cruz or Rand Paul is the GOP nominee in 2016. Part of this focus will simply come with the territory of being a presidential candidate instead of a governor, albeit of a state that abuts the media capital of the nation. He will also suffer the burden of being the early front-runner in the Republican nomination race. While that is not always a kiss of death—despite his numerous problems and the burden of his own health-care bill, Romney survived to go on to win the GOP nomination—it is a lot harder to win from the pole position in politics than coming from behind because of the intense scrutiny that it brings.

This means that although Christie is right to say all the issues raised about his background have already been litigated in two statewide elections, every charge will be hashed and rehashed endlessly by journalists who paid little attention to what was said in New Jersey in 2009 or 2013. That will include legitimate questions about policy questions as well as the usual smears and distortions that are part and parcel of political debate.

To date, Christie has shown he has the intestinal fortitude to stand up to being vivisected by the press and to shine on the big stage of national politics. But what he has endured in the past will be nothing to what will follow this evening’s festivities. Liberals who have spent the last year trying to paint Cruz as the new Joe McCarthy won’t give up on that theme, but they will also be working hard to chip away at Christie’s well-earned reputation as a straight talker and man of integrity.

Moreover, instead of using his example to show up Cruz and other Tea Partiers, they will now try to link him to them. Part of this will be justified, since as New Jersey Democrats have asserted and as Christie will tell Republican audiences, he is a conservative and has largely governed as one.

But from this point on, the focus of Christie’s mainstream media coverage will increasingly turn from one burnishing his credentials as a politician that can reach across the aisle to one of damaging the Republicans’ best hope of winning the White House in 2016.

This is the sort of thing that would test the patience of any man. But it will be a crucial indication as to whether the notoriously thin-skinned Christie is ready for the trials of politics on a national level.

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Don’t Draw Firm Lessons From NJ and VA

The narrative of tomorrow’s off-year election seems already to be set. In New Jersey, Chris Christie will win a landslide that will confirm his status as a 2016 presidential contender and a potential centrist model for Republican victories in the future. But in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, the impending defeat of Ken Cuccinelli by veteran Democratic fundraiser Terry McAuliffe is supposed to teach the GOP the opposite lesson: that nominating a Tea Party conservative is a death wish that, if applied in other swing states, is a certain guarantee of future disaster.

On the surface, there’s really no arguing with the obvious lessons coming out of these two states. Christie’s ability to win the affection of a broad cross-section of voters in blue New Jersey has turned him from an unlikely underdog winner, when he first beat Jon Corzine for governor in 2009, to a political juggernaut. On the other hand, Cuccinelli has never been able to live down the extremist tag that Democrats labeled him with and it’s unlikely that even the last week’s ObamaCare fiasco will be enough to make that election a close call, let alone allow him to win. But like all generalizations about politics, those drawn from New Jersey and Virginia are as likely to mislead us as they are to provide insight. Those looking to draw firm conclusions about what the GOP should do in 2014, let alone in 2016, should be hesitant about drawing hard and fast rules from these races.

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The narrative of tomorrow’s off-year election seems already to be set. In New Jersey, Chris Christie will win a landslide that will confirm his status as a 2016 presidential contender and a potential centrist model for Republican victories in the future. But in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, the impending defeat of Ken Cuccinelli by veteran Democratic fundraiser Terry McAuliffe is supposed to teach the GOP the opposite lesson: that nominating a Tea Party conservative is a death wish that, if applied in other swing states, is a certain guarantee of future disaster.

On the surface, there’s really no arguing with the obvious lessons coming out of these two states. Christie’s ability to win the affection of a broad cross-section of voters in blue New Jersey has turned him from an unlikely underdog winner, when he first beat Jon Corzine for governor in 2009, to a political juggernaut. On the other hand, Cuccinelli has never been able to live down the extremist tag that Democrats labeled him with and it’s unlikely that even the last week’s ObamaCare fiasco will be enough to make that election a close call, let alone allow him to win. But like all generalizations about politics, those drawn from New Jersey and Virginia are as likely to mislead us as they are to provide insight. Those looking to draw firm conclusions about what the GOP should do in 2014, let alone in 2016, should be hesitant about drawing hard and fast rules from these races.

As I wrote yesterday, Christie believes his party should learn from what he’s accomplished in New Jersey. That he hopes that will convince Republicans to nominate him for president is also not a secret. And they would be crazy not to think seriously about how he has managed to govern as a conservative yet project an independent image. That provides him with a powerful argument to be the GOP standard-bearer in 2016. But anyone looking to duplicate Chris Christie’s success elsewhere needs to understand that he is a unique political character in a specific circumstance that isn’t likely to be found elsewhere.

It needs to be understood that despite all the talk about Christie’s centrism, much of that has more to do with atmospherics than political principles. New Jersey Democrats have been complaining for years that Christie is actually quite conservative, and they’re right. Far from being the poster child for “No Labels” centrism, Christie has been willing to work with Democrats in Trenton but mostly on his terms. If he has become the bête noire of GOP conservatives it’s been because of his embrace of President Obama after Hurricane Sandy last year and his attacks on House Republicans over their stalling on an aid bill, not because of any heresy on conservative principle. Both on social issues like abortion and Tea Party core interests like reducing the size of government and fighting the power of unions, Christie fits in well with the rest of his party.

He’s gotten away with it not because citizens of the Garden State think he’s a closet liberal but because of the appeal of his personality and governing style. It’s an open question as to whether that brusque approach will play as well on the national stage as it has in New Jersey. But suffice it to say that I doubt a Republican looking to have that success in a different sort of state could use the same playbook. Though pundits will search for one, there’s no point looking for another Christie.

As for Virginia, even conservatives have to concede that Cuccinelli has been more vulnerable to liberal attacks than a more vanilla Republican might have been. But those who see him as the 2013 version of Todd Akin are being unfair. He’s actually made no real gaffes that could be used to brand him as an extremist. But he has been on the receiving end of an almost unprecedented Democratic blitz that sought to demonize him. As Politico reported over the weekend, McAuliffe has been the beneficiary of a fundraising advantage that few Democrats not named Clinton or Obama have enjoyed in recent decades. Combined with a government shutdown that disproportionately affected Virginians, the scandal surrounding the GOP incumbent in Richmond, and the demographic shifts that have already converted the commonwealth from a Republican state to one that might better be described as Democrat-leaning rather than a swing state, doomed Cuccinelli. So while it’s fair for Republicans to speculate whether someone else might have done better, it’s difficult to argue that anyone else would have been in that much stronger a position.

The bottom line here is that political science is not science. The lessons of New Jersey and Virginia are not to be ignored but they are, like almost all electoral scenarios, specific to particular personalities and circumstances. Neither the victory in one state nor the likely defeat in the other can provide Republicans with a foolproof pattern for success.

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How “Inevitable” Is Chris Christie?

These are heady times for supporters of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Christie is heading for a landslide reelection on Tuesday with polls showing his expected margin of victory ranging between 19 points and a staggering 33 percent over Democrat Barbara Buono. Thus is it no surprise that more than a few Republicans are pointing toward Christie’s impressive performance in office as well as his bipartisan electoral appeal as the party’s model for how to win in 2016. Equally unsurprising is the fact that Christie agrees with this analysis. When asked about it yesterday by NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell he responded with characteristic candor:

Asked by O’Donnell if it’s fair to say that Christie, who is widely seen as a 2016 presidential contender on the GOP side, is planning for a message that extends beyond New Jersey, Christie replied, “I’m not planning for it, I just think it’s inevitable.”

In the interview, which aired on “Meet the Press,” Christie added, “I think you people look at elections, and they try to discern things from them about what they mean at that moment and what they mean for the future. And I think that what people are going to see is so unusual for what our party has created in the last couple of years that invariably people are going to draw lessons from it and I hope they do.”

Christie is right about the significance of what he’s accomplished. While many on the right nurse grudges about Christie’s embrace of President Obama last year or resent his sensible rebuke of Rand Paul’s isolationism on foreign policy, his ability to govern as a conservative in a blue state illustrates that the alternative to the Tea Party activist model is one that holds out the hope of general-election victory. It’s obviously premature to anoint him as the frontrunner more than two years before the primaries and caucuses begin, but it isn’t too soon to speculate whether the arrogance Christie showed with O’Donnell is as much of an obstacle to his presidential hopes as the resentment of the right.

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These are heady times for supporters of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Christie is heading for a landslide reelection on Tuesday with polls showing his expected margin of victory ranging between 19 points and a staggering 33 percent over Democrat Barbara Buono. Thus is it no surprise that more than a few Republicans are pointing toward Christie’s impressive performance in office as well as his bipartisan electoral appeal as the party’s model for how to win in 2016. Equally unsurprising is the fact that Christie agrees with this analysis. When asked about it yesterday by NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell he responded with characteristic candor:

Asked by O’Donnell if it’s fair to say that Christie, who is widely seen as a 2016 presidential contender on the GOP side, is planning for a message that extends beyond New Jersey, Christie replied, “I’m not planning for it, I just think it’s inevitable.”

In the interview, which aired on “Meet the Press,” Christie added, “I think you people look at elections, and they try to discern things from them about what they mean at that moment and what they mean for the future. And I think that what people are going to see is so unusual for what our party has created in the last couple of years that invariably people are going to draw lessons from it and I hope they do.”

Christie is right about the significance of what he’s accomplished. While many on the right nurse grudges about Christie’s embrace of President Obama last year or resent his sensible rebuke of Rand Paul’s isolationism on foreign policy, his ability to govern as a conservative in a blue state illustrates that the alternative to the Tea Party activist model is one that holds out the hope of general-election victory. It’s obviously premature to anoint him as the frontrunner more than two years before the primaries and caucuses begin, but it isn’t too soon to speculate whether the arrogance Christie showed with O’Donnell is as much of an obstacle to his presidential hopes as the resentment of the right.

The argument against Christie’s inevitability is that he is too moderate to win the nomination of a party that has grown steadily more conservative. The notion that a union-bashing conservative like Christie is a closet-liberal stems from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in which he embraced Obama and then attacked House Republicans who held up a bill that aided the victims. Neither of those incidents will mean much in 2016, but there are issues on which the right will have a bone to pick with Christie. He is clearly out of step with those who regard immigration reform as a threat to the GOP because it will mean more Hispanic voters. And he has also outlined a position on foreign policy that will put him at odds with Rand Paul’s libertarian wing of the party.

Yet the assumption that the Tea Party will have a veto over the GOP nominee exaggerates their considerable influence. As the last two nomination fights illustrated, conservatives have great sway over the party, but there are plenty of states that are winnable for a moderate, especially if, as was the case for Mitt Romney, the bulk of the field is fighting for conservative votes. Nor should the right dismiss Christie as another Romney since his consistent pro-life stand makes him harder to paint as a blue state flip-flopper.

That said, the snippet aired on NBC may reveal the governor’s Achilles heel. The tough-guy persona is at the core of Christie’s appeal, but the brusque manner that he used to become a YouTube star may not play as well on a national stage.

After Tuesday, the rules are about to change for Christie. Up until now he’s been the darling of the press which lauded his ability to reach across the aisle and work with Democrats and his willingness to tell off the right wing of his own party. But once he becomes the putative GOP frontrunner—albeit years in advance of a possible run for the presidency—he will become the No. 1 target of the same mainstream liberal media that has given him so much love. At that point, they will dismiss his ability to get support from minorities and start trying to make the case that the pro-life, tough-on-teachers’ unions Christie is the enemy of women.

This faux “war on women” will be just as much of a fraud as the one the Democrats and their media enablers used to such good effect last year. But they will use Christie’s manner to bolster it. Thus, the challenge for the governor may not be so much his need to convince conservatives that he is not only their best bet to beat the Democrats, but also one of them. Instead, the real danger for Christie may be the attempt to paint him as a bully who is not ready for the presidency. As the last few election cycles show, he wouldn’t be the first Republican to be felled by this tactic. Avoiding that trap may be the real obstacle to his inevitability.

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Why 2016 Talk Hasn’t Hurt Christie’s 2013

Cory Booker’s victory in the special Senate election held earlier this month to replace Frank Lautenberg was not a surprise. But to many, his margin of victory was. He struggled to meet expectations, and though the election was not close–Booker won by eleven percent–the clumsy nature of Booker’s campaign contributed to the perception that the Newark mayor was lucky he wasn’t contesting a competitive seat.

In contrast, Governor Chris Christie’s poll numbers remain remarkably strong a week out from his own reelection, especially for a Republican in blue Jersey. And today’s poll results, from Quinnipiac, highlight something else about the two elections: both Christie and Booker have national profiles, yet only Booker seems to have been successfully tagged as a “celebrity” politician. PolitickerNJ reports:

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Cory Booker’s victory in the special Senate election held earlier this month to replace Frank Lautenberg was not a surprise. But to many, his margin of victory was. He struggled to meet expectations, and though the election was not close–Booker won by eleven percent–the clumsy nature of Booker’s campaign contributed to the perception that the Newark mayor was lucky he wasn’t contesting a competitive seat.

In contrast, Governor Chris Christie’s poll numbers remain remarkably strong a week out from his own reelection, especially for a Republican in blue Jersey. And today’s poll results, from Quinnipiac, highlight something else about the two elections: both Christie and Booker have national profiles, yet only Booker seems to have been successfully tagged as a “celebrity” politician. PolitickerNJ reports:

Likely N.J. voters say 48-41 percent that they want to see Chris Christie run for president.

A Quinnipiac University poll released today shows that with the governor’s re-election seemingly in hand, respondents want him to run for the White House in 2016.

As for his race against Sen. Barbara Buono, Christie leads 64– 31 percent, the poll shows.

Christie gets a 65–29 percent favorability rating, as even 40 percent of Democrats have a favorable opinion, the poll shows.  Buono gets a negative 26–37 percent favorability rating, with 35 percent who don’t know enough about her to form an opinion.

“From the banks of the Delaware to the beaches of the Atlantic, New Jersey voters like their governor, Christopher Christie.  On the banks of the Potomac?  Less like the governor, but still a lot,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

At first glance Christie would appear to be more vulnerable to suspicions that he is tending to national aspirations. Republicans have been asking him to run for president for years now, and New Jersey is a highly Democratic state which tends to be hostile to conservatism. Yet Christie’s national profile hasn’t hampered his standing with NJ voters for a couple of reasons, one of which is unearthed by polls like this Quinnipiac survey: New Jerseyans actually want Christie to have national aspirations.

There’s logic to this: if voters in the state like Christie’s brand of politics, and he’d be term-limited out of office after two consecutive terms anyway, why not export the “Jersey Comeback?” Additionally, a Democrat who likes Christie might want to see him as the nominee of the other party, knowing that if the Democrats lost the presidential election he might be governed by Chris Christie again anyway.

That would be doubly true, presumably, for Jersey Republicans who would probably rather be governed by Christie than whoever replaces him and who would feel more confident in a general election with a candidate with crossover appeal and who could plausibly compete in the northeast.

So that’s one reason Christie wasn’t harmed by his national profile: voters want him to have that profile. But the other reason is that it is quite difficult to make the case that Christie’s possible national ambitions have caused him to neglect New Jersey. Today is, after all, also the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy’s destructive arrival on the Jersey Shore.

Though the storm hit close to the presidential election, Christie famously welcomed President Obama’s presence and praised the government’s response in true bipartisan–or, rather, nonpartisan–spirit. His response to the storm’s damage won justified plaudits from all corners of the state, but especially because it put to rest the idea that he couldn’t focus on his responsibilities as governor with the national spotlight calling. His response to Sandy was famous for how it riled the national GOP and needled congressional conservatives over funding.

That may hold him back in a Republican primary contest, of course. But it obviously wasn’t a drag on his gubernatorial reelection hopes.

There is also one more, less tangible aspect to Christie’s connection with the state’s voters: he is not shy about his genuine love for New Jersey. He gushes about Springsteen, but as I noted in 2011, a Fairleigh Dickinson survey found that Christie was more closely associated with New Jersey in the minds of the state’s inhabitants than even The Boss. At the time, the director of the poll remarked: “I was surprised because no person has ever had enough mentions to make the list — not Sinatra, not Springsteen, not Tony Soprano and not even Snooki.”

Few figures seem to embrace their Jerseyness the way Christie does. When Christie appeared on the Daily Show, Jon Stewart tried to shame Christie for the harsh ways he sometimes talks to his political antagonists. Christie responded: “I’m from New Jersey and so are you, and we don’t mince words.”

Of course, what has served him well in New Jersey could complicate the picture nationally. Conservative primary voters resent Christie’s embrace of the president and criticism of conservative darlings like Rand Paul, and Democrats who like Christie now may not be thrilled if a national primary reawakens them to his conservatism. Yet whatever the right’s beef with Christie’s move to the center, he is currently a pro-life fiscal conservative with a thirty-three point lead in New Jersey, a feat not so easy to dismiss.

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Christie’s Gay Marriage Punt and 2016

On its face, Governor Chris Christie’s decision not to go down fighting the legalization of gay marriage in New Jersey was merely bowing to the inevitable. Though he has always opposed gay marriage and even vetoed a bill authorizing it that came out of the legislature, Christie told his attorney general to drop a planned appeal of a state Supreme Court ruling that had refused to delay the start of gay marriage in New Jersey. Given the unanimity of the court and the wording of the preliminary decision, Christie was right to think that even if he continued to fight it, the court was going to do what the legislature had failed to do: overrule the governor and institute gay marriage. But, as Politico notes, there are going to be some conservatives who will add this decision to a list of reasons why they will oppose a Christie run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

Yet as with the governor’s recent flip-flop on in-state tuition benefits for illegal immigrants, Christie is clearly not approaching policy questions demonstrating any worry about appealing to conservative Christian voters who play a large role in GOP presidential primaries. Indeed, as Politico notes today, Christie may have already decided that gestures toward pleasing that group may do his prospects more harm than good. Even though comparisons with Rudy Giuliani’s disastrous 2008 presidential candidacy are unfair since Christie is far more conservative on social issues than the former New York City mayor, Christie is clearly acting as if the same forces that doomed that moderate’s hopes cannot do the same to him.

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On its face, Governor Chris Christie’s decision not to go down fighting the legalization of gay marriage in New Jersey was merely bowing to the inevitable. Though he has always opposed gay marriage and even vetoed a bill authorizing it that came out of the legislature, Christie told his attorney general to drop a planned appeal of a state Supreme Court ruling that had refused to delay the start of gay marriage in New Jersey. Given the unanimity of the court and the wording of the preliminary decision, Christie was right to think that even if he continued to fight it, the court was going to do what the legislature had failed to do: overrule the governor and institute gay marriage. But, as Politico notes, there are going to be some conservatives who will add this decision to a list of reasons why they will oppose a Christie run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

Yet as with the governor’s recent flip-flop on in-state tuition benefits for illegal immigrants, Christie is clearly not approaching policy questions demonstrating any worry about appealing to conservative Christian voters who play a large role in GOP presidential primaries. Indeed, as Politico notes today, Christie may have already decided that gestures toward pleasing that group may do his prospects more harm than good. Even though comparisons with Rudy Giuliani’s disastrous 2008 presidential candidacy are unfair since Christie is far more conservative on social issues than the former New York City mayor, Christie is clearly acting as if the same forces that doomed that moderate’s hopes cannot do the same to him.

To argue that Christie’s decision will enable his opponents to label him pro-gay marriage seems a stretch. After all, Christie has been a firm opponent of the measure and even now says he believes the court was wrong to impose its view on the state rather than to let it be subject to the usual constitutional process for legislation. If anything, this chain of events enables Christie to make an argument about the destructive impact that activist judges have on the country, something that should appeal to conservatives.

There will be some who will claim that he should have gone down fighting preventing gay marriage. But though he has an impeccable pro-life record, he will never outdo some of his prospective conservative rivals in that respect. More than that, Christie may feel that the culture is changing on attitudes to gays so quickly that the issue won’t be a real factor even in a Republican primary. That’s especially true if the conservatives will be battling each other for the same social-issues voters while Christie has, as was the case with Mitt Romney in 2012, little competition for more moderate Republicans.

That said, no one should underestimate the hard feelings against Christie that are brewing on the Republican right. While Christie can rightly claim to be a tough-minded critic of liberals and their institutions, such as teachers’ unions, as well as having governed as a conservative in a blue state, some Tea Partiers seem to think of him as a creature of the left. In a political atmosphere that has grown more toxic as the GOP tears itself apart in the wake of the government shutdown, Christie may well become the hard right’s piñata and, along with Senator Mitch McConnell, their favorite scapegoat for all conservative defeats.

The expectation all along has been that once Christie is safely reelected next month, he will begin the process of drifting to the right in order to set up a presidential campaign. But his gay marriage decision may be one more piece of evidence that Christie has already made his peace with the fact that the right will fight his candidacy in 2016 and that he believes he can beat them anyway.

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Is 2016 Behind Christie’s Immigration Flip?

Chris Christie has built his political career on his reputation as a straight shooter who never waffles, let alone flip-flops. But he’s set himself up for a barrage of abuse from some conservatives after his announcement during a gubernatorial debate earlier this week when he announced that he had changed his position on allowing illegal immigrants to get in-state tuition benefits at New Jersey public colleges. This is a clear departure from his past stands on this issue or on those involving any benefits for illegals. That pretty much guarantees that anti-immigration forces will be accusing him of being a second Mitt Romney should he jump into the 2016 presidential race. But, Christie who is clearly carving out a niche for himself in the center of his party on a variety of issues may not care.

Like his embrace of President Obama last fall in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Christie’s “evolution” on immigration is bound to infuriate many Republicans but it is also good politics in terms of his re-election. With a lead over his Democratic opponent that ranges from the mid- to the high 20’s, Christie has few worries in terms of his chances of getting a second term in Trenton. But the governor also understands that tilting more to the center on immigration probably suits his 2016 plans better than sticking to his previous position on the issue. Though the GOP roster of potential presidential candidates is crowded in terms of those competing for Tea Party and religious conservative voters, the field is wide open in terms of so-called moderates. Moreover, given the rapid growth in the number of Hispanic voters, he may also calculate that distancing himself from the anti-immigrant tone that has infected much of conservative discourse on the issue is exactly what he needs to solidify his image as the most electable Republican in terms of a general election.

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Chris Christie has built his political career on his reputation as a straight shooter who never waffles, let alone flip-flops. But he’s set himself up for a barrage of abuse from some conservatives after his announcement during a gubernatorial debate earlier this week when he announced that he had changed his position on allowing illegal immigrants to get in-state tuition benefits at New Jersey public colleges. This is a clear departure from his past stands on this issue or on those involving any benefits for illegals. That pretty much guarantees that anti-immigration forces will be accusing him of being a second Mitt Romney should he jump into the 2016 presidential race. But, Christie who is clearly carving out a niche for himself in the center of his party on a variety of issues may not care.

Like his embrace of President Obama last fall in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Christie’s “evolution” on immigration is bound to infuriate many Republicans but it is also good politics in terms of his re-election. With a lead over his Democratic opponent that ranges from the mid- to the high 20’s, Christie has few worries in terms of his chances of getting a second term in Trenton. But the governor also understands that tilting more to the center on immigration probably suits his 2016 plans better than sticking to his previous position on the issue. Though the GOP roster of potential presidential candidates is crowded in terms of those competing for Tea Party and religious conservative voters, the field is wide open in terms of so-called moderates. Moreover, given the rapid growth in the number of Hispanic voters, he may also calculate that distancing himself from the anti-immigrant tone that has infected much of conservative discourse on the issue is exactly what he needs to solidify his image as the most electable Republican in terms of a general election.

Christie’s excuse for his switch on the issue is economic. As Fox News reports, he gave the following rationale for his stand:

“What I always have said is that when economic times got better, that that would be one of the things that I would consider,” Christie said during the debate at Montclair State University, where he faced his opponent, Democrat Barbara Buono, who long has been an emphatic supporter of in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. “It’s time now — given that economic times are getting better and the state budget revenues are going up.”

But this disclaimer doesn’t quite walk back a lot of his previous rhetoric on the question of the treatment of illegal immigrants.

In 2011, Christie took issue with a comment by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a fellow Republican who, during the GOP primaries for the presidential election, said those who opposed giving undocumented immigrants some help to afford college were “heartless.”

Shortly after, Christie said at a meeting at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library: “I want every child who comes to New Jersey to be educated, but I don’t believe that for those people who came here illegally, we should be subsidizing with taxpayer money, through in-state tuition their education.”

He added: “And let me be very clear from my perspective: That is not a heartless position, that is a common sense position.”

Nor did he shy away from directly taking on the question of how this would apply in New Jersey, a state with a large Hispanic community as well as what is estimated to be one of the largest populations of illegals.

In an [2011] appearance in New Jersey, Christie addressed the issue and raised the state’s fiscal problems, but he also noted that he opposed to giving breaks to people who break immigration laws.

“I can’t favor that, because we need to have an immigration system where people follow the rules,” Christie said at the time, “and I can’t in a difficult time of budget constraints support the idea that we should be giving money in that regard to people who haven’t followed the rules, and take that money from people who have.”

This is consistent with his economic rationale as well as helping highlight his claim that New Jersey has prospered under his administration. But it is a clear departure from a stance in which he claimed that all immigrants must play by the same rules.

Nevertheless, Christie is hardly alone in his party when it comes to realizing that integrating illegals into the economy and society makes a lot more sense than pretending they can all be deported or putting up with a status quo in which they remain in the shadows outside of the mainstream economy. Legislation like the DREAM Act has become a litmus test for Hispanic voters. Moreover, given the increasingly strident tone of anti-immigration activists that may well taint the GOP for a generation, having party leaders like Christie start to move away from positions that can be identified with hostility to immigrants makes good political sense as well as good policy.

That still leaves Christie vulnerable to attacks from conservative rivals who will claim he has flipped on the position for political reasons rather than principle. The betting here is that he will handle it better than Romney simply because his abrasive personality and blunt approach to politics will enable him to represent the switch as a matter of common sense and will refrain from the apologetics and rhetorical twists and turns that undermined Romney’s ability to explain his positions.

But no matter how successful he is in selling this point, there seems little doubt that his decision to change his coat on immigration is one more sign that he has 2016 on his mind.

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Good News for Christie: The Taft Precedent

Chris Christie faces some formidable obstacles in his path to the presidency. There are those who think his abrasive personality will ultimately do him in during the heat of a primary or general election campaign. Others point to the hostility with which many conservatives view him and say his post-hurricane embrace of President Obama will never be forgiven on the right. But others say that the real problem for Christie is his weight. Some speculate as to whether his health will allow him to survive the grueling task of running for president. And in an age in which body image seems to mean more to Americans than just about anything, it’s tough to imagine the country electing someone who can only be described as obese rather than just overweight.

Seen in that light, Christie’s fans may not have been pleased to see the New York Times focus attention today on the only real precedent for a Christie presidency: William Howard Taft. The paper ran a feature about research into the dieting methods of our 27th president. As the paper reports, Taft, whose weight fluctuated between 255-355 pounds during his career in national office, used modern dieting methods including a low-fat diet that had sporadic success. He also kept a food diary and counted calories in a manner that might seem familiar to contemporary Americans. But in the end, Taft stayed fat and was the butt of a lot jokes in his own time, not to mention stories about him getting stuck in his jumbo-size bathtub. But as much as Taft (who is remembered as much for his weight problem as for the achievements of a long and varied career in public service) is not exactly the person that Christie would want voters to think about when considering his potential presidential candidacy, there is another side to this story that actually works to his advantage.

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Chris Christie faces some formidable obstacles in his path to the presidency. There are those who think his abrasive personality will ultimately do him in during the heat of a primary or general election campaign. Others point to the hostility with which many conservatives view him and say his post-hurricane embrace of President Obama will never be forgiven on the right. But others say that the real problem for Christie is his weight. Some speculate as to whether his health will allow him to survive the grueling task of running for president. And in an age in which body image seems to mean more to Americans than just about anything, it’s tough to imagine the country electing someone who can only be described as obese rather than just overweight.

Seen in that light, Christie’s fans may not have been pleased to see the New York Times focus attention today on the only real precedent for a Christie presidency: William Howard Taft. The paper ran a feature about research into the dieting methods of our 27th president. As the paper reports, Taft, whose weight fluctuated between 255-355 pounds during his career in national office, used modern dieting methods including a low-fat diet that had sporadic success. He also kept a food diary and counted calories in a manner that might seem familiar to contemporary Americans. But in the end, Taft stayed fat and was the butt of a lot jokes in his own time, not to mention stories about him getting stuck in his jumbo-size bathtub. But as much as Taft (who is remembered as much for his weight problem as for the achievements of a long and varied career in public service) is not exactly the person that Christie would want voters to think about when considering his potential presidential candidacy, there is another side to this story that actually works to his advantage.

Though Americans tend to prefer handsome and fit presidents (a description that fits most but not all of those who both preceded and followed Taft into the White House), those who question whether Christie can take the stress of the trials of the presidency, need to remember that Taft actually lived to be 73, a ripe old age for someone who was born in 1857. If Big Bill could live a full and vigorous life until he died while serving as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, there’s no reason why Christie, who has the advantage of the better medical care available to Americans a century later, can’t do just as well if not better.

As the Times points out, had he lived today, Taft would have had the option of weight-loss surgery (a procedure that Christie underwent earlier this year) which might have helped him. But aside from that, he would be in the same position of having to cope with the travails of diets and self-monitoring.

But as Taft’s life proves, the notion that obesity shortens life spans may be a statistical meme but it is not a certain death sentence. For all of his obsessing over his weight and the embarrassment over the attention it brought him, Taft lived a full life, playing golf and being involved in useful work that he cared about. His post-presidential career was especially satisfying since it led to his joining the Supreme Court, a post that had always been the summit of his ambition. The decision to run for president was something that had more to do with the wishes of his friend and predecessor Theodore Roosevelt (though once in the White House he broke with TR and lost his bid for re-election because Roosevelt ran as a third party candidate) than his own desires. He hated his time as president.

Christie clearly revels in the work of running a large, complex state like New Jersey (a post he is in no danger of losing this fall as his current lead over his Democratic opponent is at 24 percentage points in the latest poll) as well as in the political combat that comes with it and would likely thrive in the White House as well.

However, the real challenge would not so much lie in being president as in running for the job. Unlike 1908 when Taft could follow the practice of staying home and campaigning from his front porch while surrogates were detailed to do the dirty work of hitting the hustings and making the case for his election, Christie would be forced to engage in the two-year-long sprint that is the current method candidates must endure. But given the large number of Americans who face the same problem today (due to the availability of food and health care, far more Americans are obese today than they were in 1908 and 1912) he could count on a lot of sympathy for his weight struggles than might overcome any tendency to reject a fat president.

We can’t predict Christie’s future health any more than Taft’s doctors could say how long he would live more than a century ago. Nor can we be certain of the political forecast. But the odds are, if Christie is not going to win in 2016 it will not be due to his weight.

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The Christie-Booker Expectations Game

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took some heat from conservatives earlier this year for his decision to schedule the special Senate election for the late Frank Lautenberg’s seat a few weeks earlier than the gubernatorial election. It was a pragmatic move for Christie: Cory Booker was going to be the Democratic Senate candidate and probably sail to victory. For Christie, having his own reelection separate from Booker’s Senate election would ensure that any extra turnout generated by Booker’s campaign would not also be casting a vote that same day (possibly) against Christie.

This put Republicans vying for Lautenberg’s seat against Booker at a disadvantage, but no one thought it would be close enough to matter either way. In contrast, because New Jersey is a solid blue state, Christie would want to take no chances. But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. Booker’s lead in the polls has slipped enough to worry his supporters and inspire Michael Bloomberg to dump buckets of money into Booker’s campaign coffers, even while Booker’s opponent, former Bogota mayor Steve Lonegan, seemed to be left by his party to fend for himself.

The whole election season has thus been somewhat confusing for outsiders. But anyone seeking to understand why Christie has soared while Booker has tumbled–in New Jersey of all places–could do worse than watch this brief clip from last night’s gubernatorial debate between Christie and his Democratic opponent, State Senator Barbara Buono:

                

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took some heat from conservatives earlier this year for his decision to schedule the special Senate election for the late Frank Lautenberg’s seat a few weeks earlier than the gubernatorial election. It was a pragmatic move for Christie: Cory Booker was going to be the Democratic Senate candidate and probably sail to victory. For Christie, having his own reelection separate from Booker’s Senate election would ensure that any extra turnout generated by Booker’s campaign would not also be casting a vote that same day (possibly) against Christie.

This put Republicans vying for Lautenberg’s seat against Booker at a disadvantage, but no one thought it would be close enough to matter either way. In contrast, because New Jersey is a solid blue state, Christie would want to take no chances. But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. Booker’s lead in the polls has slipped enough to worry his supporters and inspire Michael Bloomberg to dump buckets of money into Booker’s campaign coffers, even while Booker’s opponent, former Bogota mayor Steve Lonegan, seemed to be left by his party to fend for himself.

The whole election season has thus been somewhat confusing for outsiders. But anyone seeking to understand why Christie has soared while Booker has tumbled–in New Jersey of all places–could do worse than watch this brief clip from last night’s gubernatorial debate between Christie and his Democratic opponent, State Senator Barbara Buono:

                

Christie has natural political skills, sharpened by being a conservative in a blue state. Though Booker is personable, he is struggling to make his case to a sympathetic electorate, as the New York Times explained in its story about Bloomberg’s rescue mission:

But the Senate campaign Mr. Booker, a Democrat, is running in New Jersey — at times sputtering, unfocused and entangled in seemingly frivolous skirmishes over Twitter messages involving a stripper — has unnerved his supporters, who thought that a robust and unblemished victory over his Republican opponent, Steve Lonegan, would catapult him onto the national stage. …

Mr. Booker’s bumpy campaign and shrinking lead in the polls are all the more unsettling to Democratic Party officials because Mr. Lonegan is a political anomaly in the blue-hued state: a Tea Party conservative who describes himself as a “radical,” opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest, cheers the current shutdown of the federal government and has relied on polarizing right-wing figures like Sarah Palin and Rick Perry as campaign surrogates.

Mr. Lonegan, despite his ideological alignment, appears to have tapped into lingering doubts about whether Mr. Booker can translate his outsize, self-promotional persona, so popular with the Democratic base, into the rigors of a highly disciplined campaign.

This is familiar territory; the press last year began wondering aloud whether Booker had enough substance for the national stage, and they apparently never got a satisfactory answer. It should be noted that Booker is still likely to win, and by a healthy margin: a double-digit victory is no nail-biter. But he’s losing the expectations game. “This should be a 20-point lead and not anything less than that,” Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray told the Times.

Democrats were unhappy when Booker decided not to challenge Christie and instead run for Senate, thereby leaving the Democrats without a formidable gubernatorial candidate and with a glut of candidates for a Senate seat any of them would win. He also ended the Senate hopes (for now) of Representative Frank Pallone, who was Lautenberg’s chosen successor (not that that entitles him to the seat).

But those same Democrats might be more understanding now. Were Booker to stumble and lose to Christie, his career would be in trouble and New Jersey Democrats would lose a popular voice on chummy Sunday morning roundtables. Instead, he will join New Jersey’s senior senator, Bob Menendez, on those roundtables. The two will make quite a pair for New Jersey’s Democratic representation in the media; Booker is charismatic while Menendez is bland, but Menendez possesses actual influence (he is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) while Booker will give the affectation of such, which to Beltway media is basically the same thing.

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