Commentary Magazine


Topic: Chris Christie

Without Bluster, Christie’s Not That Interesting

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was under the national media’s microscope yesterday when he delivered his annual “State of the State” address in Trenton only days after the “Bridgegate” scandal broke. Christie responded with a restrained, intelligent speech that acknowledged that fiasco but concentrated on a reform agenda on taxes, crime, education, and other nuts-and-bolts issues that have endeared him to his state’s voters. These are the same topics he would have highlighted even if his political trajectory had not been jeopardized by last week’s revelations of his staff’s bizarre scheme to create traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge. So the address was a chance for Christie to get back on message and to show that he can still govern and do so in a manner that will bolster his reputation as an effective and innovative governor who can work with Democrats for the common good. Judged on its content and by the measured manner with which it was delivered, Christie did just that.

But there is no escaping the fact that the Christie who spoke yesterday was not quite the same guy who had become a national figure in the last year. As many observers noted, the governor’s manner was noticeably more restrained than it had been last year when he took a bow in Trenton in the wake of his successful efforts to help the state recover from Superstorm Sandy. Bluster and flamboyance were replaced by a more low-key approach that showed Christie was acutely conscious of the fact that he could no longer get away with a cavalier dismissal of critics who believe the Bridgegate misdeeds as well as the examples of the governor’s office exacting revenge on his foes were directly linked to his brusque and often arrogant style.

While the change of tone won’t stop Democrats, both in New Jersey and elsewhere, from making his life miserable investigating the scandal and seeking to undermine any efforts for bipartisan compromise, it does offer him a chance to start the difficult task of making the public forget about the nightmare of the last week. But it also raises the question of whether the new, less abrasive Christie will be as interesting and ultimately as much of a star as the old one. Based on yesterday’s evidence, the answer is not so much.

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was under the national media’s microscope yesterday when he delivered his annual “State of the State” address in Trenton only days after the “Bridgegate” scandal broke. Christie responded with a restrained, intelligent speech that acknowledged that fiasco but concentrated on a reform agenda on taxes, crime, education, and other nuts-and-bolts issues that have endeared him to his state’s voters. These are the same topics he would have highlighted even if his political trajectory had not been jeopardized by last week’s revelations of his staff’s bizarre scheme to create traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge. So the address was a chance for Christie to get back on message and to show that he can still govern and do so in a manner that will bolster his reputation as an effective and innovative governor who can work with Democrats for the common good. Judged on its content and by the measured manner with which it was delivered, Christie did just that.

But there is no escaping the fact that the Christie who spoke yesterday was not quite the same guy who had become a national figure in the last year. As many observers noted, the governor’s manner was noticeably more restrained than it had been last year when he took a bow in Trenton in the wake of his successful efforts to help the state recover from Superstorm Sandy. Bluster and flamboyance were replaced by a more low-key approach that showed Christie was acutely conscious of the fact that he could no longer get away with a cavalier dismissal of critics who believe the Bridgegate misdeeds as well as the examples of the governor’s office exacting revenge on his foes were directly linked to his brusque and often arrogant style.

While the change of tone won’t stop Democrats, both in New Jersey and elsewhere, from making his life miserable investigating the scandal and seeking to undermine any efforts for bipartisan compromise, it does offer him a chance to start the difficult task of making the public forget about the nightmare of the last week. But it also raises the question of whether the new, less abrasive Christie will be as interesting and ultimately as much of a star as the old one. Based on yesterday’s evidence, the answer is not so much.

Christie’s rise to prominence in the last two years was not based as much on his ideas as his personality. He is just one among a number of successful reform-minded Republican governors who have sought new solutions to the deadly spiral of debt and taxes with which liberal big-government schemes have saddled their states. He deserves credit for making progress on these issues, especially in a blue state with a Democratic legislature. But as good as his record may be, it does not especially stand out when compared to the achievements of some of his peers who are also presidential possibilities, such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker or Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal.

What made Christie special was his demeanor. His lack of inhibition when telling people off and dismissing their criticisms was as refreshing as it was often politically incorrect. The YouTube videos of his town hall meetings and press conferences where he jousted with foes were entertaining because of his attitude, not the strength of his positions. Christie’s magic was based on the public’s delight in his brash manner and unfettered opinions, especially his penchant for blasting anyone who dared to question his ideas or motives. It was always an open question whether this Northeast everyman would play as well in flyover country as he did in the metropolitan New York media market, especially when his embrace of President Obama after the storm alienated many conservatives. But as long as he pulled no punches, Christie had little to worry about—a conclusion that was reinforced by a landslide reelection in which his support from women, Hispanics, and blacks seemed liked a preview of a GOP victory in 2016.

But shorn of the bluster and reduced to a calm advocate of good government, the new Chris Christie is not as interesting as the old one.

Having risen to the top of the polls of future Republican presidential contenders largely on the strength of being a media darling, it’s far from clear that the Christie who has been transformed in the space of a few days into a press piñata can stay afloat in the conversation about 2016. The problem is not only that he is taking a pounding from liberals who rightly feared him as the GOP’s best threat to derail a Hillary Clinton presidency. It’s that a Christie who is on the defensive and must now worry about appearing to be a bully will be hard-put to distinguish himself from other Republicans with similar ideas but without the baggage that the governor must now carry as he goes forward.

Unless Democrats and their press auxiliaries can dig up something that directly incriminates Christie in the bridge lane closings, he will survive this rough patch. Polls show he has retained, at least for the moment, his support in the state. But the chastened Chris Christie who must now adopt a more generous tone toward his foes is not the same man who rocketed to fame as the tough guy who wasn’t afraid to abuse the press or tell voters that it was none of their business where his kids went to school or what they did. Even if everyone forgets about the bridge a year or two from now (and given the Democratic interest in making sure we won’t, don’t expect that to happen) Christie can never be quite the same politician again. In some ways that might even turn out to be an improvement since a bit more humility and restraint when torching anyone who isn’t a cheerleader would be a good thing for the governor. But the Christie who emerges from this crisis isn’t the kind of candidate who is likely to become the Republican nominee in 2016.

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Latest Bridge Pile-on Finishes Christie in ’16

In yesterday’s Washington Post, written at the height of the Bridgegate media feeding frenzy, Chris Cilizza claimed that despite the blows New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had absorbed in the last week, he must still be considered the leading contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Perhaps so, but only in the sense that a person who has suffered a fatal wound will sometimes continue functioning for a time before the final collapse. The merits of any such ranking published two years before any votes are counted can be debated with impunity. Moreover, eliminating Christie at this point would force Cilizza–or any other pundit who likes to write lists of this kind–to promote potential candidates such as Rand Paul, Scott Walker, or Ted Cruz (who are, respectively, numbers two, three, and four on the list) to the top spot who currently have no business claiming the title of frontrunner.

But even after a day when Christie’s troubles dominated the Sunday morning talk shows and it may have seemed things couldn’t get any worse for the governor, they have. The media pile-on is continuing with the New York Times running a story at the top of its website this afternoon about Christie’s administration playing hardball with Mayor Steven Fulop of Jersey City in a manner reminiscent of the way it did with Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee, the intended victim of the bizarre bridge lane closings scheme. Perhaps even more troubling is the news that the Federal Government intends to conduct an audit of funds allocated to New Jersey in Hurricane Sandy relief. The fact that some of that money was used to pay for ads featuring Christie promoting tourism to the hard-hit Jersey Shore resort towns was criticized by both Democratic and Republican rivals of the governor, but no one had paid much attention to the complaint until this week.

There is nothing new or even scandalous in the fact that Christie’s office canceled meetings between Mayor Fulop and commissioners who might have helped his city. Nor is there any merit to cries of corruption about the “Stronger than the storm” ads starring Christie. But the willingness of Christie’s political and press opponents to keep kicking him without mercy now that he is down is an indication of just how deep a hole Christie is in after Bridgegate. The governor’s political career isn’t over, but the national political capital that he had been accumulating in the last two years has vanished. If he is serious about running for president in 2016—something that we should no longer consider a certainty—he is going to have to start from scratch today.

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In yesterday’s Washington Post, written at the height of the Bridgegate media feeding frenzy, Chris Cilizza claimed that despite the blows New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had absorbed in the last week, he must still be considered the leading contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Perhaps so, but only in the sense that a person who has suffered a fatal wound will sometimes continue functioning for a time before the final collapse. The merits of any such ranking published two years before any votes are counted can be debated with impunity. Moreover, eliminating Christie at this point would force Cilizza–or any other pundit who likes to write lists of this kind–to promote potential candidates such as Rand Paul, Scott Walker, or Ted Cruz (who are, respectively, numbers two, three, and four on the list) to the top spot who currently have no business claiming the title of frontrunner.

But even after a day when Christie’s troubles dominated the Sunday morning talk shows and it may have seemed things couldn’t get any worse for the governor, they have. The media pile-on is continuing with the New York Times running a story at the top of its website this afternoon about Christie’s administration playing hardball with Mayor Steven Fulop of Jersey City in a manner reminiscent of the way it did with Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee, the intended victim of the bizarre bridge lane closings scheme. Perhaps even more troubling is the news that the Federal Government intends to conduct an audit of funds allocated to New Jersey in Hurricane Sandy relief. The fact that some of that money was used to pay for ads featuring Christie promoting tourism to the hard-hit Jersey Shore resort towns was criticized by both Democratic and Republican rivals of the governor, but no one had paid much attention to the complaint until this week.

There is nothing new or even scandalous in the fact that Christie’s office canceled meetings between Mayor Fulop and commissioners who might have helped his city. Nor is there any merit to cries of corruption about the “Stronger than the storm” ads starring Christie. But the willingness of Christie’s political and press opponents to keep kicking him without mercy now that he is down is an indication of just how deep a hole Christie is in after Bridgegate. The governor’s political career isn’t over, but the national political capital that he had been accumulating in the last two years has vanished. If he is serious about running for president in 2016—something that we should no longer consider a certainty—he is going to have to start from scratch today.

As Cilizza rightly notes, Christie remains “the most naturally talented candidate in Republican politics.” A sympathetic pundit like David Frum is probably not entirely wrong when he scorns those who have quickly written the governor off after Bridgegate and may well be right when he refers to Christie, who is still a relatively young man who may well be in play in 2020 and beyond, as being at the beginning of a career in presidential politics rather than at its end.

But the belief that Bridgegate is but a passing phenomenon that will soon subside as do all media firestorms ignores the fact that the fiasco has robbed the governor of one of his greatest assets. Christie became famous by playing the tough-talking truth teller who spoke up for the little guy and worked across party lines. That conceit was created in no small measure by the governor’s ability to earn cheers for brashly ignoring criticism and telling off foes. Now that his office has proved that the talk of his being a bully is no figure of speech, it won’t be possible for him to play that card again without reminding people of the traffic jams on the bridge or his staff’s scheming revenge on Democrats who won’t do as they’re told.

The investigation begun by the Department of Housing and Urban Development over the use of Hurricane relief is utterly specious. Getting people to return to the shore the summer after the storm was integral to recovery efforts and Christie’s featured role was not only customary (governors of both parties and their families are routinely shown in such ads around the country without sparking investigations) but also probably smart; Christie had become the state’s most recognizable and well-liked personality in the wake of his successful storm relief efforts and his controversial (at least to conservative Republicans) embrace of President Obama. The announcement of the probe is also blatantly political since no one had paid any attention to complaints about the ads from Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone when he carried on about it last summer, though Rand Paul, another Christie foe, repeated the charge in November after he and the governor began jousting over foreign policy.

But even though nothing will come of this investigation, the decision of the Obama administration to join the attack on Christie shows how vulnerable he has become. As unfair as this aspect of the pile-on may be, it will drag on for months and, like the bridge business, will be thrown in Christie’s face every time he surfaces. It won’t drive him from office as liberals would like (unless, that is, some evidence surfaces that proves he was in on the bridge lane closings) but it will make it impossible to do the normal business of politics that is essential to preparing a presidential candidacy.

What’s more, Christie’s woes will make it easier for other contenders such as Jeb Bush, who seek the same centrist and moderate conservative backing that he seemed to have in his pocket, to emerge. The momentum Christie had after a landslide reelection has dissipated and the enthusiasm of GOP donors for a man who can no longer claim to be a rising star and media idol is also likely in question.

I’ll concede that a Christie presidential candidacy is not impossible in 2016. But if it does happen, it will have to take a completely different trajectory and be based on a recovery of public affection by the governor that seems high unlikely now. So while I’m not sure who belongs at the top of the list of Republicans kept by Cilizza and other pundits, the one thing I do know is that it shouldn’t be Christie.

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Will Christie Learn From His Searing Political Experience?

The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, in writing about “Bridgegate”–the stunningly inappropriate, petty, and stupid political retribution by top aides of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie against the mayor and citizens of Fort Lee–provides a reasonable and balanced assessment of Christie’s press conference last week.

“If everything the governor said stacks up, he’ll wind up diminished but the story will fade,” according to Noonan. “If it doesn’t—if there are new revelations or questions that cast him in a dark light—he’ll be finished as a national figure.” But there’s no question that “his uphill fight for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 just got uphiller.”

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The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, in writing about “Bridgegate”–the stunningly inappropriate, petty, and stupid political retribution by top aides of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie against the mayor and citizens of Fort Lee–provides a reasonable and balanced assessment of Christie’s press conference last week.

“If everything the governor said stacks up, he’ll wind up diminished but the story will fade,” according to Noonan. “If it doesn’t—if there are new revelations or questions that cast him in a dark light—he’ll be finished as a national figure.” But there’s no question that “his uphill fight for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 just got uphiller.”

Ms. Noonan then shifts her focus to staffers and operatives in politics:

Christie operatives are not the only ones in politics who talk this way. And they all do it not because they’re really tough but because they think that’s how people like them—rock-’em sock-’em operatives—would talk. They don’t have the brains, heart or judgment of people who’ve lived a life because they haven’t all lived a life. They’re 30 or 40 and came of age in a media-saturated country. They saw it all on TV. They saw it on a screen.

They sometimes forget they’re not in a TV show about callous operatives who never get caught. They’re in life, where actually you can get caught.

Advice for politicians: Know who they are, and help them mature. If you don’t, they’ll do goofy things, bad things, and they’ll not only hurt us. They’ll hurt you.

Those are words Governor Christie should contemplate. The New Jersey governor is obviously a man with impressive political skills. He won a huge reelection victory in a blue state and has some notable achievements to his name. But it is legitimate to wonder, given how close Christie was to the aides that executed the retaliation, if what happened was symptomatic of a mindset, a pattern of behavior, an organizing political principle. I have no idea. But Governor Christie and those who are closest to him do.

Unless there’s evidence directly tying Mr. Christie to what occurred on the George Washington Bridge for four days in September, he’ll certainly survive. The media obsession with this story will eventually fade. The deeper question is whether the New Jersey governor uses this experience to engage in honest self-reflection.

The character of an administration, its ethos, is determined by the behavior of those in authority. Something was obviously amiss in Christie World. Does Governor Christie have the wisdom and capacity not simply to fire people who have committed wrongs but to change how he operates? Will he surround himself with people who don’t roll their eyes at concepts like the public trust and political integrity? Who, if they had heard about this effort to exact political retribution, would not only have objected to it but dismissed on the spot those who concocted it? Will he build something good out of this searing experience? 

During his press conference last week, Governor Christie said the right things. My guess is he means them. But he’s on notice. One (political) near death experience ought to be enough. 

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The Media and the End of President Christie

For supporters of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, it’s difficult to look at this past week’s events in any but catastrophic terms. A week ago, Christie was still basking in the glow of his landslide reelection and at the top of polls for Republican presidential candidates in 2016. Today, he is drowning in a sea of negative stories about Bridgegate. Yesterday’s apologetic news conference and penitential trip to Fort Lee did little to halt the avalanche of criticism from the mainstream media. Though most political professionals thought his performance at the press conference at which he answered every question was good, most of the reviews have been scathing with pundits denouncing even his straightforward apologies as merely more examples of his self-centered nature. Indeed, his claim that “I am not a bully” will inevitably be compared to Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook.”

As I wrote on Wednesday, there is neither proof nor reason to think the governor had any direct involvement in Bridgegate, Christie brought much of this firestorm on himself. He built his tough-guy reputation with an arrogant, pugnacious style that lends credibility to the notion that he created an environment that might lead some staffers to think he would approve of a petty, vindictive prank on a town run by a Democratic mayor who declined to endorse the governor’s re-election bid. Christie deserved every bit of the crow he was forced to publicly consume, and if many observers are saying his professions of ignorance about what happened are indicative of a faulty management style that is reminiscent of Barack Obama’s excuses for ignorance about his administration’s scandals, there is no obvious defense to the charge. Christie’s dream of winning the White House has been dealt a fatal blow and given that the same media that lionized him last fall will never let him live this down, it is far from clear exactly how he will be able to get back on message in the coming weeks and months. The betting here is that this marks the unofficial end of the governor’s presidential hopes. Two years is a lifetime in politics, but not long enough for this crisis to recede from public memory in time to rebound and recapture the enthusiasm for his 2016 candidacy.

That is the major fact to be understood about Bridgegate. However, once we acknowledge that Christie’s political brand is so tarnished by this episode that he won’t be able to reassume the mantle of the GOP frontrunner, it will then be time to ask whether the mainstream media that helped create Christie’s popularity was entirely correct in the way they destroyed it.

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For supporters of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, it’s difficult to look at this past week’s events in any but catastrophic terms. A week ago, Christie was still basking in the glow of his landslide reelection and at the top of polls for Republican presidential candidates in 2016. Today, he is drowning in a sea of negative stories about Bridgegate. Yesterday’s apologetic news conference and penitential trip to Fort Lee did little to halt the avalanche of criticism from the mainstream media. Though most political professionals thought his performance at the press conference at which he answered every question was good, most of the reviews have been scathing with pundits denouncing even his straightforward apologies as merely more examples of his self-centered nature. Indeed, his claim that “I am not a bully” will inevitably be compared to Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook.”

As I wrote on Wednesday, there is neither proof nor reason to think the governor had any direct involvement in Bridgegate, Christie brought much of this firestorm on himself. He built his tough-guy reputation with an arrogant, pugnacious style that lends credibility to the notion that he created an environment that might lead some staffers to think he would approve of a petty, vindictive prank on a town run by a Democratic mayor who declined to endorse the governor’s re-election bid. Christie deserved every bit of the crow he was forced to publicly consume, and if many observers are saying his professions of ignorance about what happened are indicative of a faulty management style that is reminiscent of Barack Obama’s excuses for ignorance about his administration’s scandals, there is no obvious defense to the charge. Christie’s dream of winning the White House has been dealt a fatal blow and given that the same media that lionized him last fall will never let him live this down, it is far from clear exactly how he will be able to get back on message in the coming weeks and months. The betting here is that this marks the unofficial end of the governor’s presidential hopes. Two years is a lifetime in politics, but not long enough for this crisis to recede from public memory in time to rebound and recapture the enthusiasm for his 2016 candidacy.

That is the major fact to be understood about Bridgegate. However, once we acknowledge that Christie’s political brand is so tarnished by this episode that he won’t be able to reassume the mantle of the GOP frontrunner, it will then be time to ask whether the mainstream media that helped create Christie’s popularity was entirely correct in the way they destroyed it.

As much as shutting down lanes on the George Washington Bridge as “revenge” was an astonishingly stupid thing for Christie’s aides to have done, at this point it’s time to note the disproportional nature of the attention to this story. The liberal media that spent a year treating questions about Benghazi as a Republican distraction and refused to draw any dire conclusions about the politicization of the IRS are now treating a traffic jam as more important than the deaths of four Americans at the hands of terrorists or the unconstitutional behavior of the most powerful agency in the government. Moreover, if Christie were a liberal Democratic star  who abused power in this manner rather than a Republican, it’s fair to assume the scandal wouldn’t be front-page news. We know that to a certainty because then-New York Governor Eliot Spitzer used the state police to spy on his political opponents—a maneuver that is at least as egregious if not far more serious than Bridgegate—without it being treated as front-page news in the New York Times or dominating cable TV news.

That the political press would go all-out on a story as juicy as this one is neither surprising nor, in and of itself, necessarily indicative of bias. But the idea that this was not only an embarrassment and worthy of censure but also merited calls for Christie’s resignation is the sign of how quickly this incident became a political stick with which to crush the man widely thought to be the most electable Republican in the 2016 field.

It should be stipulated that if proof ever emerges that Christie directly ordered lane closings on the bridge for political purposes, this will get a lot worse for him. But given the way he openly mocked suggestions that he had personally taken part in the scheme only last month, that seems unlikely. Even those who are rightly outraged at this abuse of power must admit the nature of the scandal doesn’t rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors.

While I think a thorough investigation of the affair is warranted, it’s far from clear what laws were actually broken other than the informal rules of political conduct that ought to prevent those in power from abusing their prerogatives. Many people were inconvenienced in a prank that still makes no sense, but no money was stolen and, despite efforts to hype the angle of ambulance delays, no lives were lost as a result of the lane closures. It’s doubtful that anyone who would claim this should be enough to force Christie’s resignation from office (the subject of a New York Times “Room for Debate” feature) would be doing so were he not a Republican who looked like a major obstacle to Democratic hopes of winning the 2016 presidential election.

The overkill on Christie may be excused by his presidential ambitions, but the attention paid to this story and the refusal to accept his explanations stands in stark contrast to the willingness by many of the same media outlets to accept President Obama’s excuses about his administration’s scandals last summer. The same New York Times that now dismisses any attempt by Christie to disavow personal responsibility scoffed at anyone that would try to hold the president or his then-secretary of state accountable for what had happened on his watch with respect to Benghazi, the IRS, or spying on the media.

It should also be remembered that while Spitzer was brought down by a sex scandal, prior to that we knew he used New York State Troopers to spy on his political opponents, an abuse of power that is far more frightening from the point of view of democracy than the creation of a traffic jam. Like Christie, that, too, was in keeping with Spitzer’s reputation as a political bully earned while he played the “Sheriff of Wall Street” as New York’s attorney general. But if the liberal media paid any attention to it at the time, it was considered merely business as usual in the rough and tumble world of Albany politics. The fact that virtually no one on the right is making this point is an indication of how unpopular Christie had become among conservatives who can usually be counted upon to speak up when one of their own is under liberal media siege.

After three days, attacks on Christie have risen to the level of overkill and can’t be reasonably sustained without further material that is unlikely to exist. Saying this doesn’t diminish the damaging nature of the revelations or undo the damage that was done to his political career. But once the dust has settled, it will be time to ask ourselves whether the hysteria we’ve witnessed this week was entirely justified and why the same media that has all but buried Governor Christie stands silent and remains unmotivated to do the same amount of digging to expose the inner workings of the scandals in the Obama administration.

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“Outsiders” and Political Rebellion

If you’ve been following “Bridgegate,” the scandal currently engulfing Chris Christie, you are well aware, as every single story has explained, that this threatens Christie’s image in two ways. The first is that it reinforces a media narrative about him, which means it’s the kind of scandal that sticks: he’s a bully. The second is that it undermines his populist appeal and his anti-corruption bona fides. (Though his apologetic press conference today will probably win back points on that score.)

Both explanations are true, which is why they’ve proliferated as if they’ve been sent from the wires. And yet, accurate as they are, these explanations don’t seem to quite get to the bottom of it. The question at the heart of this is: Why does the public like Chris Christie enough to make a Republican governor of New Jersey an early favorite for 2016? Yes, they like his honesty, his bluntness, his humor, and his relatable persona. But I think there’s a missing ingredient to his popularity.

Christie was the consummate outsider as a candidate for governor, but how he translated that into office really enabled him to own the moniker. The vast bureaucracy of the federal government, and bipartisan frustration with the status quo in Washington, presents true “outsider” politicians with an opportunity. It was an opportunity that catapulted Barack Obama to the presidency, but which turned out to be a cruel joke played on the voters: Obama, as Kevin Williamson has so cogently pointed out, is “the front man for the permanent bureaucracy, the smiley-face mask hiding the pitiless yawning maw of total politics.”

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If you’ve been following “Bridgegate,” the scandal currently engulfing Chris Christie, you are well aware, as every single story has explained, that this threatens Christie’s image in two ways. The first is that it reinforces a media narrative about him, which means it’s the kind of scandal that sticks: he’s a bully. The second is that it undermines his populist appeal and his anti-corruption bona fides. (Though his apologetic press conference today will probably win back points on that score.)

Both explanations are true, which is why they’ve proliferated as if they’ve been sent from the wires. And yet, accurate as they are, these explanations don’t seem to quite get to the bottom of it. The question at the heart of this is: Why does the public like Chris Christie enough to make a Republican governor of New Jersey an early favorite for 2016? Yes, they like his honesty, his bluntness, his humor, and his relatable persona. But I think there’s a missing ingredient to his popularity.

Christie was the consummate outsider as a candidate for governor, but how he translated that into office really enabled him to own the moniker. The vast bureaucracy of the federal government, and bipartisan frustration with the status quo in Washington, presents true “outsider” politicians with an opportunity. It was an opportunity that catapulted Barack Obama to the presidency, but which turned out to be a cruel joke played on the voters: Obama, as Kevin Williamson has so cogently pointed out, is “the front man for the permanent bureaucracy, the smiley-face mask hiding the pitiless yawning maw of total politics.”

As a candidate, Obama truly was an outsider: though a senator, he had only just arrived in that august body, using his community-organizer credibility to promise a government of the people, a tree directed by its roots. As president, however, Obama has been exactly the opposite of an outsider. He has become one with the bureaucracy, not only not a leader but barely even a manager.

Looking back at the some of the moments when Western democracy truly asserted itself and proved its unmatched value to the politics of the world, it’s impossible not to repeatedly bump into the outsider presidents, people who rebelled against the bureaucracy that expected to capture them–a government of insiders who shuddered at the thought their new leader.

As David McCullough chronicles in his biography of Harry Truman, when FDR died and Truman took over, “People were fearful about the future of the country.” The head of the TVA said “The country and the world don’t deserve to be left this way.” Top generals disapproved too. Truman was such an outsider that FDR kept him out of the loop–unconscionably, considering his health. The president of the United States took the helm during World War II and had to be briefed on virtually everything that was going on in the White House.

And yet that very distance was liberating to Truman, even if he wanted to govern as he thought FDR would have–in part because, thanks to being kept in the dark, he didn’t actually know how FDR was governing most of the time. From challenging the labor unions to pushing back against Soviet encroachment, Truman successfully (if imperfectly) navigated the obstacles of the emerging postwar world. Eisenhower is often celebrated for his “realism,” but that’s because he largely maintained the American position of strength he inherited from Truman.

The Cold War that began in earnest on Truman’s watch ended in earnest on the watch of another political rebel, Ronald Reagan. He worried diplomatists in Washington by exhorting Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” He had worried hardliners earlier with his off-script diplomacy at the Reykjavik summit; Nixon said “no summit since Yalta has threatened Western interests so much as the two days at Reykjavik.”

He worried hawks with his drive to eliminate nuclear weapons. He worried doves with his drive for missile defense. Over and over again, he was right. But he had to navigate the established centers of authority on both right and left to get there, and he did so expertly. He remained enough of an outsider to do so.

And across the pond, Reagan’s ally was arguably more of a rebel against the establishment. Think of all the layers of resistance Margaret Thatcher had to break through to get to the prime minister’s office, and all the internal barriers she had to overcome once there–though of course the British premiership is structured differently than the American presidency, so the parallels are limited. (In some cases, though, that disparity makes Thatcher’s accomplishments even more impressive.)

Chris Christie’s time in office has given the impression that he would remain an outsider in Washington. Getting a Democratic state legislature in a heavily Democratic state to vote against the interests of the most powerful Democratic constituency was an example of an outsider undeterred by the entrenched power structure. When members of such an administration appear to use the authority of the state to take petty revenge on political opponents at the expense of the public, the impression is that the power structure has finally co-opted its would-be conqueror. To regain his footing, Christie will likely attempt to convince the public that he can still be trusted to tame the bureaucracy, and not be captured by it.

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Will “Bridgegate” Damage Christie? Maybe.

Liberals who have been waiting for an opportunity to take down New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seem to have finally fished their wish. The disclosure of emails linking some of the governor’s top aides to a bizarre mini-scandal over lane closings on the George Washington Bridge provides opponents of the Republican presidential contender with plenty of fodder for attempts to debunk his carefully crafted image as a no-nonsense truth teller who is more interested in getting things done than in partisan bickering. Outlets like the New York Times and Politico are playing it for all it’s worth. Some of those hyping the story, like Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall, who wrote today that Christie’s in “big trouble,” are clearly exaggerating the potential harm to the governor in the hope that this will hasten the demise of the man widely believed to be the most formidable general-election candidate in the GOP stable.

But if the governor and his backers think it will all blow over without his having to seriously address the issue, they’re wrong. Christie doesn’t just need to apologize and then fire the aides who were stupid enough to send emails and text messages detailing their role in a foolish prank. This caper inconvenienced thousands of New Jersey citizens in an apparent attempt to exact revenge on the mayor of the town of Fort Lee for failing to endorse Christie’s reelection. Even if there is no proof that the governor was personally involved in this misadventure, Christie should understand that this story bolsters the attempts of his foes to portray him as a bully with a thin skin. More than the fallout from what is nothing more than a minor political dirty trick, the ballooning narrative that Christie is a political thug with a style that is well-suited to New Jersey politics but not to the national stage could very well damage his presidential hopes.

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Liberals who have been waiting for an opportunity to take down New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seem to have finally fished their wish. The disclosure of emails linking some of the governor’s top aides to a bizarre mini-scandal over lane closings on the George Washington Bridge provides opponents of the Republican presidential contender with plenty of fodder for attempts to debunk his carefully crafted image as a no-nonsense truth teller who is more interested in getting things done than in partisan bickering. Outlets like the New York Times and Politico are playing it for all it’s worth. Some of those hyping the story, like Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall, who wrote today that Christie’s in “big trouble,” are clearly exaggerating the potential harm to the governor in the hope that this will hasten the demise of the man widely believed to be the most formidable general-election candidate in the GOP stable.

But if the governor and his backers think it will all blow over without his having to seriously address the issue, they’re wrong. Christie doesn’t just need to apologize and then fire the aides who were stupid enough to send emails and text messages detailing their role in a foolish prank. This caper inconvenienced thousands of New Jersey citizens in an apparent attempt to exact revenge on the mayor of the town of Fort Lee for failing to endorse Christie’s reelection. Even if there is no proof that the governor was personally involved in this misadventure, Christie should understand that this story bolsters the attempts of his foes to portray him as a bully with a thin skin. More than the fallout from what is nothing more than a minor political dirty trick, the ballooning narrative that Christie is a political thug with a style that is well-suited to New Jersey politics but not to the national stage could very well damage his presidential hopes.

As for what actually happened in early September, even lengthy accounts, such as that provided today by the Times, are somewhat sketchy. The emails and text messages dug up by journalists establish that the governor’s deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, as well as David Wildstein and David Samson, who were appointed by Christie to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that controls the bridge over the Hudson River between the two states, establish that they helped orchestrate lane closings. As a result, commuting time was quadrupled for people who lived in the Fort Lee area. Though the Times headline explicitly describes this as an attempt at “revenge” for Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich’s decision to back the campaign of Barbara Buono, Christie’s doomed Democratic challenger, weeks after the closings even the mayor wasn’t sure that rumors that he was being punished for his choice were true. Seen in that light, the plot was as clumsy as it was wrong, since a clever bully would have made it clear to Sokolich that the bridge closings would occur before he turned Christie down, not afterward when the causal connection would be all too apparent.

Equally as botched is the spectacle of presumably sophisticated political operatives using forms of communication to hatch a juvenile plot that could easily be traced back to them and, even more damaging, jeopardizing the political future of their boss. While some are comparing the closings to a plot twist in an episode of The Sopranos, that’s unfair to Tony’s gang. When they schemed and plotted, they knew better than to leave themselves open to successful detection. All this speaks to an atmosphere in the governor’s office that seems roughly comparable to Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign that had no more need to bug Democratic offices in the Watergate than Christie needed to take a shot at Fort Lee. Even if Christie knew nothing about this specific incident, he bears some responsibility for tolerating an environment that produced this kind of behavior.

Of course, it’s not likely that too many voters in New Hampshire, Florida, or any other early primary state will remember the details of Bridgegate two years from now when the GOP will be choosing its presidential nominee. It’s doubtful that many of them will understand the mechanics of bridge lane closings and Northern New Jersey traffic patterns sufficiently (something that was also the case of many of those writing about this from near and afar) to make the story stick in their minds in a way that will doom Christie’s chances. As far as we know, nobody died in the traffic jams. Nor did this involve stolen money or any of the other traditional elements of scandals that are generally fatal to politicians such as the proverbial “dead girl or live boy.”

But what this story does do is provide chapter and verse to a Democratic script that seeks to transform Christie’s image. The governor skated to a landslide reelection last year and from there to the top of Republican Party presidential polls. He embodied the everyman who laughs at his own weight problems on late-night television and fearlessly tells off union bosses, liberal critics, and conservative members of his own party. But if Democrats can convince voters that he is more of petty, spiteful thug than a likeable man of integrity, he really is finished.

Will they succeed? Maybe. After all, Christie became a GOP star largely on the basis of YouTube videos of town hall meetings in which he berated critical questioners and of press conferences in which he verbally mugged journalists. To his fans, it was refreshing candor. But to the objects of his scorn it doubtless felt like bullying. Combined with numerous other examples of his playing rough with political opponents, Bridgegate can help feed a narrative in which Christie can be portrayed as an unattractive figure who is not capable of withstanding the scrutiny afforded national political figures.

This afternoon, the governor issued a statement expressing regret for the incident and saying he was “misled” by aides and that it had gone on without his knowledge. But if Christie is to get out of this pickle, he will have to do more including firing those staffers who are implicated in the bridge closings and apologizing for both their actions. He must also acknowledge that he failed  to address this problem until it blew up in his face. As I wrote last month when the Times placed a feature about allegations of his bullying style on the front page of its Christmas Day edition, it isn’t clear whether Christie’s old-school political style will work against him elsewhere. But is certainly possible that this story will reinforce the Democrats’ spin that the characteristics that made him popular in New Jersey will work against him on the national stage. Any further delay by the governor in addressing this story head-on will only make matters worse.

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Is Christie’s Old School Style Marketable?

Even some of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s biggest supporters have always understood that one of his greatest strengths is also a potential weakness. The governor’s blunt manner and the delight he takes in personally taking on opponents helped make him a YouTube star and fueled the talk about a 2016 presidential run. But the same quality that makes people cheer his angry dismissal of foes can also seem overbearing or the mark of a bully. I’ve often wondered whether Christie’s in-your-face style would play as well outside of New Jersey and the New York media market, especially once he began to receive the kind of micro-coverage from the national press corps that any presidential candidate must expect. So while one must take the New York Times’s Christmas present to the governor in the form of a highly critical feature focusing on stories about Christie taking revenge on his foes in the context of liberal fears about his popularity, the article also illustrates how tales of his temper can catch up with him.

The piece, which graced the front page of the holiday edition of the Times, is a compendium of stories about how Christie treats those who cross him. Like many another powerful politician, the governor does not hesitate to use his power to punish critics and political enemies and to reward his friends. In that sense, there is nothing unique about Christie’s behavior. But placed in the context of his well-publicized lack of tolerance for opposing views, it is not entirely unfair to assert that it comes across as bullying. However, the question for Americans about Chris Christie is not only whether they like his personal style but also whether they are ready for a president who embraces the perks of power with the kind of gusto that he exudes.

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Even some of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s biggest supporters have always understood that one of his greatest strengths is also a potential weakness. The governor’s blunt manner and the delight he takes in personally taking on opponents helped make him a YouTube star and fueled the talk about a 2016 presidential run. But the same quality that makes people cheer his angry dismissal of foes can also seem overbearing or the mark of a bully. I’ve often wondered whether Christie’s in-your-face style would play as well outside of New Jersey and the New York media market, especially once he began to receive the kind of micro-coverage from the national press corps that any presidential candidate must expect. So while one must take the New York Times’s Christmas present to the governor in the form of a highly critical feature focusing on stories about Christie taking revenge on his foes in the context of liberal fears about his popularity, the article also illustrates how tales of his temper can catch up with him.

The piece, which graced the front page of the holiday edition of the Times, is a compendium of stories about how Christie treats those who cross him. Like many another powerful politician, the governor does not hesitate to use his power to punish critics and political enemies and to reward his friends. In that sense, there is nothing unique about Christie’s behavior. But placed in the context of his well-publicized lack of tolerance for opposing views, it is not entirely unfair to assert that it comes across as bullying. However, the question for Americans about Chris Christie is not only whether they like his personal style but also whether they are ready for a president who embraces the perks of power with the kind of gusto that he exudes.

The problem that this story, and the scores like it that will follow from a national media eager to take Christie down in the years that still separate us from the formal start of the 2016 campaign, is that there is a fine line that separates a truth-telling man of the people, as the governor’s friends think of him, from that of the public bully that comes across in the Times story. Voters love it when Christie tells his critics to go to hell not just because they often agree with him but because they like the authenticity he projects. Unlike so many in our political class, there is no deception or posing with Christie. He tells us what he thinks and dares us to disagree in a manner that speaks well for his integrity, especially when compared with most of the products of a political culture in which every utterance or gesture is poll-tested before being trotted out. If he thinks someone is misrepresenting him or his policies, he says so in unvarnished terms that leave little doubt of his opinion. His willingness to say what he thinks and to show his emotions and even his disdain gives him credibility because what Americans most want from their political leaders is honesty.

But it must be admitted there is a point when such conduct can cross the line into rudeness and ill humor that speaks more to Christie’s natural irascibility than it does his candor. That is a danger to his prospects in 2016 simply because likeability often counts more in presidential politics than anything else. That means that if Christie is to succeed, in the next two years he’s going to have to work just as hard at showing the more attractive aspects of his personality than in lashing out. That shouldn’t be a problem, as he has already shown us that he has a good sense of humor, including the ability to laugh at himself (as his pulling a donut out of his pocket on David Letterman’s show illustrated), as well as having the kind of quirks (such as his struggles with his weight and his devotion to Bruce Springsteen) that will humanize him in ways that Mitt Romney was never able to do. But it is an open question whether the examples of temper tantrums and exaction of revenge on political critics and foes will outnumber the instances of the more appealing aspects of his personality as the run-up to the primaries continues.

But just as important is the question of whether we are really ready for an old-school style politician who isn’t shy about using raw power in open view. While all of our recent presidents have sought to help their friends and to punish their enemies, modern national political figures have preferred to pose as being above such petty concerns. We haven’t had a president who consistently allowed himself to be seen acting in this manner since the days of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. Needless to say that is not the sort of comparison Christie or any other 2016 contender would like and it is exactly the reason that the Times and other mainstream liberal outlets will work hard to establish this image.

Yet in an era in which the most popular complaint about Congress and other branches of government is one of dysfunction, there may be an opening for a candidate who is not ashamed of exercising power. Christie’s brand is not just that of a tough-talking guy but also as a man who can get things done even if means ruffling feathers and stepping on toes. Whether such a stance will play well in Middle America, especially in southern and western states where conservatives are already skeptical about Christie’s supposed moderation, is open to question. But since a shift to a cuddlier Christie is unlikely and liable to be viewed as fake, if he is to be elected president it will have to be on his own terms. 

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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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