Commentary Magazine


Topic: Chris Christie

Don’t Draw Firm Lessons From NJ and VA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How “Inevitable” Is Chris Christie?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why 2016 Talk Hasn’t Hurt Christie’s 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christie’s Gay Marriage Punt and 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is 2016 Behind Christie’s Immigration Flip?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Good News for Christie: The Taft Precedent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Christie-Booker Expectations Game

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

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

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

                

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

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

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

                

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Shutdown Threat and 2016

One argument I’ve been making about the prospective class of 2016 GOP presidential candidates is that the divide between the governors and the senators redounds to the benefit of the governors. Coverage of the congressional battles fought since the Republicans took back control of the House of Representatives has focused mostly on the here and now: divided government and partisan bickering grinds Congress, and thus President Obama’s agenda, to a halt.

Both sides will argue whether it is in the best interests of the republic for the Democrats to be impeded, and will surely argue as well over the legality and constitutionality of Obama’s response, which is to simply vest the legislative powers of Congress in the White House for the time being. But what often goes unmentioned is the fact that the Republicans’ lack of power and the conservative grassroots’ antipathy toward major legislation means the rising stars of the Senate have thin resumes.

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One argument I’ve been making about the prospective class of 2016 GOP presidential candidates is that the divide between the governors and the senators redounds to the benefit of the governors. Coverage of the congressional battles fought since the Republicans took back control of the House of Representatives has focused mostly on the here and now: divided government and partisan bickering grinds Congress, and thus President Obama’s agenda, to a halt.

Both sides will argue whether it is in the best interests of the republic for the Democrats to be impeded, and will surely argue as well over the legality and constitutionality of Obama’s response, which is to simply vest the legislative powers of Congress in the White House for the time being. But what often goes unmentioned is the fact that the Republicans’ lack of power and the conservative grassroots’ antipathy toward major legislation means the rising stars of the Senate have thin resumes.

To correct this, conservative senators like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio have been like tired baseball players in extra innings swinging for the fences on every pitch, tantalized by the knowledge they are one well-timed swat from getting the win. Rubio did this by working with Democrats to get comprehensive immigration reform passed in the Senate, though it has languished in the House. Paul singlehandedly elevated his profile with the 13-hour talking filibuster over drones. And all three of them are now engaged in a high-stakes gamble by threatening to shut down the government unless Congress votes to de-fund ObamaCare.

The ploy is unlikely to be successful, but today the Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan argues that the three Republicans only stand to win by losing:

Why? Because Rubio, Cruz and Paul get to champion a plan that looks attractive to many conservatives in theory but could be politically disastrous in practice.

The trio of senators and possible 2016 presidential candidates is supportingpitch circulated by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) that calls on lawmakers to not support any continuing resolution or appropriations bills that devote even a cent to funding President Obama’s health-care law. The plan has gained very little traction in the GOP Conference, despite a series of campaign-style events in August designed to build support for it.

Still, it’s getting the job done for the principals involved. Politically, at least.

I’m not sure I fully agree with the premise; my sense is that whatever the trio will gain politically will accrue to them whether or not the government gets shut down in the end, because that support is coming primarily from the base, which appreciates the attempt whatever the result. But it’s worth recalling that while the GOP governors don’t want the shutdown–because they worry about the effect on their own state economies–they also don’t need it, politically.

If Cruz, Paul, and Rubio end up running for president, and not much changes between now and then, they are going to be running on ideas–sometimes powerful ideas, powerfully expressed. But they might be going up against governors like Scott Walker, Chris Christie, and Bobby Jindal, who can all boast of having taken on the unions and instituted much-needed reform.

In Christie’s case, he did this in a blue state, proving conservative policy can have mainstream appeal. In Jindal’s case, as I wrote this week, he is taking on the Obama administration’s Justice Department over school vouchers. And in Walker’s case, when the unions, media, and the rest of the American left went ballistic over his reforms, he outmaneuvered and defeated them at every turn.

The governors have another advantage: they don’t have to take difficult, inconvenient, or symbolic congressional votes. And that includes on de-funding ObamaCare. It’s true that the governors have counseled against shutting down the government over ObamaCare, but that’s different from actually voting the other way or standing against the grassroots tide represented by Ted Cruz. Sullivan’s logic, that since the shutdown won’t happen anyway its supporters need not worry about the consequences, rings true for the governors as well. If the shutdown fails, the governors can’t be blamed for it by the grassroots. If by chance it goes through, the governors won’t be responsible for the consequences.

That is not to say the senators should be blamed for swinging for the fences (though the various strategies are not all equal). They have to play the hand they were dealt, and that means accepting the confines of being leading lights in a party out of power. But there’s no question it puts the governors, at least for now, at an advantage.

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Can Christie Be Christie and Win in 2016?

Yesterday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie bolstered his regular-guy image by performing as a guest host on New York’s WFAN Sports Radio morning show. For those not conversant with the world of New York or sports radio, the FAN is the most influential and widely listened-to sports station in the nation’s biggest market, and that kind of free platform is the sort of thing all the money in the world can’t buy a politician looking to burnish his brand. This wasn’t his first appearance on “Boomer & Carton,” and once again Christie demonstrated that he’s not only an experienced showman but is someone who can speak credibly about sports (he sometimes calls in to sound off on the subject under the moniker of “Chris from Mendham”). During the course of four hours of non-stop palaver while subbing for vacationing former football star Boomer Esiason, Christie was his typical blunt and opinionated self, defending favorites like New York Jets Coach Rex Ryan and expressing disdain for the New York Yankees (he’s a Mets fan).

That’s all well and good, and he’s as entitled to his opinion on such burning topics as whether Jets fans are too hard on quarterback Mark Sanchez as anyone else. Moreover, his behavior on the show, like the YouTube videos of his encounters with the citizens of New Jersey on political topics, employed the same in-your-face style that endeared him to conservatives nationwide who loved watching him dress down liberals, union bosses, teachers, and anyone else who contradicted him (or at least they did until he hugged President Obama after Hurricane Sandy last fall). But with the growing likelihood that Christie will run for president after his almost certain reelection as governor this fall, the reaction to yesterday’s show makes me wonder whether Christie can go on being Christie once the long slog to 2016 really begins for him. While the Garden State and his fans think there’s nothing wrong with the governor routinely calling people “idiots” now, will that sort of off-hand nastiness be accepted from a presidential candidate?

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Yesterday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie bolstered his regular-guy image by performing as a guest host on New York’s WFAN Sports Radio morning show. For those not conversant with the world of New York or sports radio, the FAN is the most influential and widely listened-to sports station in the nation’s biggest market, and that kind of free platform is the sort of thing all the money in the world can’t buy a politician looking to burnish his brand. This wasn’t his first appearance on “Boomer & Carton,” and once again Christie demonstrated that he’s not only an experienced showman but is someone who can speak credibly about sports (he sometimes calls in to sound off on the subject under the moniker of “Chris from Mendham”). During the course of four hours of non-stop palaver while subbing for vacationing former football star Boomer Esiason, Christie was his typical blunt and opinionated self, defending favorites like New York Jets Coach Rex Ryan and expressing disdain for the New York Yankees (he’s a Mets fan).

That’s all well and good, and he’s as entitled to his opinion on such burning topics as whether Jets fans are too hard on quarterback Mark Sanchez as anyone else. Moreover, his behavior on the show, like the YouTube videos of his encounters with the citizens of New Jersey on political topics, employed the same in-your-face style that endeared him to conservatives nationwide who loved watching him dress down liberals, union bosses, teachers, and anyone else who contradicted him (or at least they did until he hugged President Obama after Hurricane Sandy last fall). But with the growing likelihood that Christie will run for president after his almost certain reelection as governor this fall, the reaction to yesterday’s show makes me wonder whether Christie can go on being Christie once the long slog to 2016 really begins for him. While the Garden State and his fans think there’s nothing wrong with the governor routinely calling people “idiots” now, will that sort of off-hand nastiness be accepted from a presidential candidate?

The question is brought to mind by the reaction to one of Christie’s “idiot” riffs by New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica who objected to the governor characterizing the News’s Jets beat reporter Manish Mehta as “a complete idiot” as well as being “self-consumed” and “underpaid” for pressing Jets coach Ryan about some inexplicable blunders during a game this past weekend. Lupica, in the worst tradition of tabloid journalism, attempted to hype the comment into a full-blown feud between Christie and the paper in a column today that included a boxing style “tale of the tape,” contrasting the average sized and largely unknown reporter with the supersized famous Republican. The piece is itself best described as fairly idiotic, all the more so since Lupica, who sometimes does double duty for the News supplying liberal opinion columns for its news section, makes no secret of the fact that he has a political axe to grind against Christie.

But as foolish as all this might be, it does point out two flaws in Christie’s armor that might not play as well on the national stage as it does in the New York-metro area. In blasting the scribe, Christie was, after all, behaving the same way he often does on the stump: like a thin-skinned bully who shows little respect to not just opponents, but ordinary people who have the temerity to confront him or who displease him in some way. It may be all in fun when sports-talking on the FAN, but does anyone really think this sort of incident won’t be blown out of proportion if it happened in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, or any other primary or caucus state?

Christie’s answer may be to say that the country will have to take him as he is. And there could be more value for him in not changing than in modifying his behavior to please voters outside of his home area who might regard it as insufferable. Indeed, it could well be that a toned-down Christie wouldn’t play as well as the real McCoy. But those who expect that he can go on calling people “idiots” all the way to the White House (a group that probably includes the governor) need to understand that the rules for national presidential politics are not the same as the ones by which we judge governors in Northeast states.

One of Christie’s biggest assets is his authenticity, and the contrast between him and the last GOP presidential candidate on that score couldn’t be greater. But once you start running for president, your statements get scrutinized in ways they’ve never been before. If he really wants to be president, he may discover that all the bluster in the world won’t be enough to undo the damage an ill-considered and insensitive remark causes.

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Scott Brown Keeps Everyone Guessing

Though it was disappointing to Bay State Republicans, there were several good reasons for Scott Brown to decline to run for the Massachusetts Senate seat opened up by John Kerry’s elevation to secretary of state. Brown had just run two Senate elections in three years, first to successfully vie for Ted Kennedy’s old seat and then unsuccessfully to retain it for a full term. If he wanted to run for Kerry’s seat, he would have to run yet another election this year and then run a year later to retain the seat for a full term.

The prospect of running four Senate elections over that span without even serving the equivalent of a full Senate term seemed physically and financially exhausting. But another reason for Brown to pass on the Senate seat was that he could run for governor instead in 2014. Massachusetts elects Republican governors far more often than the state elects Republican senators. (This is not uncommon in the blue northeast.) Additionally, Brown was thought to have the opportunity to face a weaker opponent for the governor’s mansion. But now Brown has announced he will not seek that office either:

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Though it was disappointing to Bay State Republicans, there were several good reasons for Scott Brown to decline to run for the Massachusetts Senate seat opened up by John Kerry’s elevation to secretary of state. Brown had just run two Senate elections in three years, first to successfully vie for Ted Kennedy’s old seat and then unsuccessfully to retain it for a full term. If he wanted to run for Kerry’s seat, he would have to run yet another election this year and then run a year later to retain the seat for a full term.

The prospect of running four Senate elections over that span without even serving the equivalent of a full Senate term seemed physically and financially exhausting. But another reason for Brown to pass on the Senate seat was that he could run for governor instead in 2014. Massachusetts elects Republican governors far more often than the state elects Republican senators. (This is not uncommon in the blue northeast.) Additionally, Brown was thought to have the opportunity to face a weaker opponent for the governor’s mansion. But now Brown has announced he will not seek that office either:

“For the first time in 15-plus years, I have had a summer to spend with my family. In addition, I have been fortunate to have private sector opportunities that I find fulfilling and exhilarating,” the Republican said in a statement on his Facebook page. “These new opportunities have allowed me to grow personally and professionally. I want to continue with that process.”

MyFoxBoston.com reported that Brown made his initial statement about not running for governor in a radio interview with longtime Boston journalist Dan Rea.

Gov. Deval Patrick, a two-term Democrat, is not running again. Charlie Baker, the Republican who lost to Patrick in 2010, is widely expected to run for the office again in 2014. According to CBS Boston, Brown told Rea he would support Baker if he should choose to run.

Although Brown has obvious political talent and the party had high hopes for signs of Republican life in the northeast, the national party didn’t have nearly as much invested in a Scott Brown gubernatorial campaign. The GOP would of course love to push the narrative of a Republican comeback in Massachusetts to compliment Chris Christie’s popularity in New Jersey. But having Brown in the Senate could impact the party’s ability to shape (or prevent) legislation. As such, the governor’s mansion was a consolation prize, not an equal exchange, for the Senate seat.

The true significance of Brown’s decision not to run for governor is for Brown’s career. It is highly unlikely that a politician could come away from a moment of fame and adulation without any desire to perpetuate or reclaim it, especially someone who, like Brown, does not seem to have a fallback option. (Though Brown had signed on with Fox News, he is obviously much more at home on the campaign trail than in the television studio.)

On that score, two days before he announced he wasn’t running for governor, Brown made a trip to Iowa and dropped some not-so-subtle hints about his political future:

Former Sen. Scott Brown is considering a run for president in 2016, he told a Massachusetts paper Sunday while at the Iowa State Fair.

“I want to get an indication of whether there’s even an interest, in Massachusetts and throughout the country, if there’s room for a bipartisan problem solver,” Brown told the Boston Herald from the early-caucus state. “It’s 2013, I think it’s premature, but I am curious. There’s a lot of good name recognition in the Dakotas and here — that’s pretty good.”

Needless to say, Brown is probably not running for president in 2016 if he is not going to have more on his national resume than a third of a term in the Senate. Running for governor (and winning) would have at least made this a plausible option, though even in that case it would be impractical. What would Brown’s constituency be in the Republican presidential primary? He could run as the mainstream northeast Republican, but Chris Christie would seem to have that role to himself. (Christie is also more conservative than Brown, and thus a more realistic nominee.)

His decision not to try to extend his time in the Senate while heading to Fox News had echoes of Sarah Palin’s recent career trajectory. But the similarities end there. Brown didn’t leave his post; he was defeated. Palin also has higher name recognition, having run as the Republican vice presidential nominee. More importantly, Palin had a massive following among the base, whereas Brown is far from ideologically compatible with the grassroots. While it’s highly unlikely Palin would still be able to attract the loyalty of conservative voters over, say, Ted Cruz or Rand Paul, Brown was never their champion in the first place.

That’s why the Senate made the most sense for him, since he could be excused for his moderation by simply being a Republican beachhead on Democratic turf while still stymieing major liberal legislation (as he tried to do with ObamaCare). Failing that, the governor’s mansion would at least enable him to build his resume with real experience. It’s doubtful, however, that Brown is stepping too far away from national politics. At the very least, every open seat in Massachusetts (and even some in New Hampshire) for which Brown would be eligible will begin the speculation of his return all over again.

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Can Christie Win With the Bush Formula?

Chris Christie appeared at the recent meeting of the Republican National Committee in Boston to tell them about how his administration in New Jersey is a model for how Republicans can both govern and win elections. If it seemed familiar, it should, since he used his prime time television spot at last summer’s GOP convention to make some of the same points. But if there is any model that Christie is following these days, it appears to be the one dreamed up by Karl Rove that led George W. Bush to the presidency. Christie’s establishment of a national fundraising network was the lede of a story on him in yesterday’s New York Times. That’s an important element of his gubernatorial reelection that shows just how formidable a presidential contender he could be in 2016. But the even more significant development is the aspect that bears a striking resemblance to George W. Bush’s campaign for reelection as governor of Texas in 1998 and his subsequent successful run for the presidency. As the Times reports:

Senior Republicans who are familiar with Mr. Christie’s strategy say it is most closely modeled after Mr. Bush’s bid in 1998 for re-election as governor of Texas. The parallels are clear. Mr. Bush was considered a shoo-in for re-election to the governor’s office, but he and Mr. Rove became determined to win over Hispanic and black voters to demonstrate the governor’s broad appeal to a national audience. Mr. Bush won that race, with 68 percent of the vote, which included more than a third of the Hispanic vote, offering him a powerful credential when he ran for president two years later as “a different kind of Republican.”

This summer, Mr. Christie established a bilingual campaign office in Paterson, N.J., and spent $275,000 on a Spanish-language television ad. He has also announced a Hispanics for Christie coalition and is now running even among Hispanic voters against Ms. Buono, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released 10 days ago.

While Christie’s truculent personality will make it a bit harder to sell him to the public as the “compassionate conservative” that Bush was depicted as being, this is exactly the sort of candidate that Republicans who hope to improve on their increasingly poor showings with minorities and independents want. But the question for both Christie and the GOP is whether the party’s conservative base will interpret this outreach as a form of “treason” rather than commonsense politics.

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Chris Christie appeared at the recent meeting of the Republican National Committee in Boston to tell them about how his administration in New Jersey is a model for how Republicans can both govern and win elections. If it seemed familiar, it should, since he used his prime time television spot at last summer’s GOP convention to make some of the same points. But if there is any model that Christie is following these days, it appears to be the one dreamed up by Karl Rove that led George W. Bush to the presidency. Christie’s establishment of a national fundraising network was the lede of a story on him in yesterday’s New York Times. That’s an important element of his gubernatorial reelection that shows just how formidable a presidential contender he could be in 2016. But the even more significant development is the aspect that bears a striking resemblance to George W. Bush’s campaign for reelection as governor of Texas in 1998 and his subsequent successful run for the presidency. As the Times reports:

Senior Republicans who are familiar with Mr. Christie’s strategy say it is most closely modeled after Mr. Bush’s bid in 1998 for re-election as governor of Texas. The parallels are clear. Mr. Bush was considered a shoo-in for re-election to the governor’s office, but he and Mr. Rove became determined to win over Hispanic and black voters to demonstrate the governor’s broad appeal to a national audience. Mr. Bush won that race, with 68 percent of the vote, which included more than a third of the Hispanic vote, offering him a powerful credential when he ran for president two years later as “a different kind of Republican.”

This summer, Mr. Christie established a bilingual campaign office in Paterson, N.J., and spent $275,000 on a Spanish-language television ad. He has also announced a Hispanics for Christie coalition and is now running even among Hispanic voters against Ms. Buono, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released 10 days ago.

While Christie’s truculent personality will make it a bit harder to sell him to the public as the “compassionate conservative” that Bush was depicted as being, this is exactly the sort of candidate that Republicans who hope to improve on their increasingly poor showings with minorities and independents want. But the question for both Christie and the GOP is whether the party’s conservative base will interpret this outreach as a form of “treason” rather than commonsense politics.

It should be remembered that many Republicans saw the younger Bush as the establishment’s candidate for 2000, and in many ways that was exactly right. But Bush succeeded in arousing the sympathy of movement conservatives as well as his father’s large donors. That worked because the 43rd president’s social conservative views that placed him to the right of Bush 41 convinced the party’s base that he could be trusted to govern even though he worked hard to show himself as open to constituencies that were not Republican strongholds, like Hispanics. What Bush strategist Karl Rove understood was that if you turn out your base while eating into Democratic majorities in other demographic sectors, that was a formula for victory.

Flash forward 15 years later and Republicans understand that victory in 2016 will rely on the same prescription, but find themselves handicapped by the willingness of much of the GOP base to identify themselves with opposition to immigration reform, a cause that has often spilled over into open prejudice such as that articulated recently by Rep. Steve King. Even more disturbing, an increasingly vocal segment of Republicans aren’t so much dedicated to these views as they are suspicious of anyone who seeks to work with Democrats (or embrace them when they come bearing federal aid money after a hurricane, as Christie did with President Obama last October) or willing to try to work to get Hispanic or black votes.

Christie’s problem thus isn’t so much whether his views are sufficiently conservative—as a pro-life opponent of big labor and budget cutter he should be acceptable to the right on his own terms—as whether his efforts to cast himself as a centrist is itself disqualifying.

Perhaps to some on the right it is, and there’s little doubt that this reputation as well as his commendable attack on isolationist views on security and foreign policy will hurt him with some Tea Partiers. As Seth wrote last week, merely putting Christie forward as more likely to win than other Republicans isn’t a compelling argument. But neither should Christie be discouraged from mimicking the George W. Bush formula. If, like the Texan, he can credibly claim to be a conservative (as perhaps John McCain and Mitt Romney did not) while also demonstrating an ability to beat Democrats on their home turf in New Jersey (something Romney feared to try to do a second time in Massachusetts), then maybe the Bush formula can elect another Republican to the White House.

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GOP Shouldn’t Fear Competitive Primary

I mentioned in my earlier post the fact that Hillary Clinton’s supposed inevitability in 2008 never materialized, and that few remember how central Clinton’s strength as a candidate was to her potential rival GOP campaigns. Few also seem to remember just how acrimonious was the drawn-out primary battle that eventually produced Barack Obama’s nomination. There were worries all along on the left that the vicious contest would split the Democratic Party and weaken the eventual nominee.

Neither happened, and Clinton eventually went on to serve as Obama’s secretary of state before getting Obama’s obvious support for her 2016 run. The party managed to avoid civil war as well as the attempts to nominate Al Gore–yes, Al Gore–on the second ballot at the Democratic National Convention that year. Despite that seemingly cheerful epilogue, some Republicans apparently worry that a drawn-out primary process could hamper the party’s hopes of taking back the White House in 2016–though this concern is slightly different than the Democrats’ 2008 version in that Republicans are unnerved by the sheer number of potential GOP candidates. They fear not a split, but a shattering, according to the Hill:

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I mentioned in my earlier post the fact that Hillary Clinton’s supposed inevitability in 2008 never materialized, and that few remember how central Clinton’s strength as a candidate was to her potential rival GOP campaigns. Few also seem to remember just how acrimonious was the drawn-out primary battle that eventually produced Barack Obama’s nomination. There were worries all along on the left that the vicious contest would split the Democratic Party and weaken the eventual nominee.

Neither happened, and Clinton eventually went on to serve as Obama’s secretary of state before getting Obama’s obvious support for her 2016 run. The party managed to avoid civil war as well as the attempts to nominate Al Gore–yes, Al Gore–on the second ballot at the Democratic National Convention that year. Despite that seemingly cheerful epilogue, some Republicans apparently worry that a drawn-out primary process could hamper the party’s hopes of taking back the White House in 2016–though this concern is slightly different than the Democrats’ 2008 version in that Republicans are unnerved by the sheer number of potential GOP candidates. They fear not a split, but a shattering, according to the Hill:

More than two dozen Republicans are eyeing the GOP presidential nomination, while on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton looks like she could coast to the crown.

Only a handful of Democrats are even circling Clinton, while the potential GOP field just continues to grow.

“To beat Hillary Clinton in 2016, you need a strong candidate,” GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said of his party’s 2016 contenders. “A crowded field has the potential to give Hillary a bigger leg up than she currently has.”

The contrast poses opportunities and threats for the GOP.

A winning candidate could emerge from a crowded primary stronger and battle tested, much as President Obama was strengthened from a 2008 primary fight with Clinton.

But a crowded primary could also weaken a GOP nominee by extending the fight and exhausting the eventual winner physically and financially.

Or, it could muddle things enough to allow a weaker nominee to emerge.

I’m not quite sure either of the assumptions underlying this concern holds up under scrutiny. Was Obama really “strengthened” by his battle with Clinton? On the other hand, he surely wasn’t weakened enough to lose or low enough on resources not to set records for campaign fundraising. That, I think, gets to the point of why these stories are logical but overheated: nominate a strong candidate, he will not be held back by the primary. Nominate a weak candidate, and it won’t matter.

Obama was a strong general-election candidate, and John McCain was not. Thus, the fact that Obama had a bitter struggle to gain the nomination while McCain effectively had his wrapped up by Super Tuesday had no real effect on the general election. It was Obama, not McCain, who was flush with cash. And it was McCain, not Obama, who had trouble uniting his party behind his candidacy.

As for the perception of the party among the general voting public, the number of candidates matters less than the quality of those candidates. The Hill goes on to name the prospective GOP candidates, and includes people like Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, and Steve King. But the list of potential first-tier candidates who are more likely to actually run and to garner enough votes to participate in the televised debates goes something like this: Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, perhaps Paul Ryan and John Kasich.

There are others, but those names are the reason many conservatives have been optimistic about the future of the movement and the GOP. A popular perspective from the right is that a lineup like that is a good problem to have, and that you really can’t have too many good candidates at a time like this. Whether they actually turn out to be good candidates remains to be seen, of course. But if each of them didn’t have constituent appeal there would be no concern about splitting the vote.

The party will have its debate and choose its standard bearer, and that debate looks to be wide-ranging, diverse, and almost certainly contentious. But it’s doubtful conservatives would rather have a coronation.

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Enough About “Electability”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Never Too Early to Get Ahead for 2016

If you aren’t a political junkie, the growing attention being paid to the maneuverings of the prospective presidential candidates is more irksome than merely boring. But it’s clear that although we are two years away from when the period of active campaigning will start, the contenders are already facing up to the fact that the impressions they are leaving on prospective voters are laying the foundation for the political landscape of the next presidential race. So even as we concede that two years from now nobody will remember the polls and maybe even the controversies of the summer of 2013, that contest will likely be affected by what is going on today.

Like it or not, the dustup between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul over foreign policy is the first defining moment of the 2016 race and, if you believe the latest polls coming out of New Hampshire, made them the only true first-tier candidates in the running. Just as significant is the fact that Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who was running neck and neck with Paul earlier in the year in a PPP poll, has now fallen to the back of the pack. These standings will mean nothing two years from now, let alone in January 2016 when New Hampshire Republicans vote for nominee that could stand up against Hillary Clinton (who seems to be cruising to the Democratic nomination by acclimation as if she were already the incumbent in the White House). But the longer a narrative in which only Christie or Paul seem to be plausible winners stays in place, the harder it will be for any of the many others who want the nomination to raise enough money to challenge them.

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If you aren’t a political junkie, the growing attention being paid to the maneuverings of the prospective presidential candidates is more irksome than merely boring. But it’s clear that although we are two years away from when the period of active campaigning will start, the contenders are already facing up to the fact that the impressions they are leaving on prospective voters are laying the foundation for the political landscape of the next presidential race. So even as we concede that two years from now nobody will remember the polls and maybe even the controversies of the summer of 2013, that contest will likely be affected by what is going on today.

Like it or not, the dustup between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul over foreign policy is the first defining moment of the 2016 race and, if you believe the latest polls coming out of New Hampshire, made them the only true first-tier candidates in the running. Just as significant is the fact that Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who was running neck and neck with Paul earlier in the year in a PPP poll, has now fallen to the back of the pack. These standings will mean nothing two years from now, let alone in January 2016 when New Hampshire Republicans vote for nominee that could stand up against Hillary Clinton (who seems to be cruising to the Democratic nomination by acclimation as if she were already the incumbent in the White House). But the longer a narrative in which only Christie or Paul seem to be plausible winners stays in place, the harder it will be for any of the many others who want the nomination to raise enough money to challenge them.

In the WMUR/University of New Hampshire poll published on Tuesday, Christie leads the GOP field with 21 percent of the vote on a multi-candidate ballot. Paul is a strong second with 16 percent. But Rubio has fallen to fifth place (behind Rep. Paul Ryan and Jeb Bush) with only six percent, less than half of the 15 percent he received in the same poll back in April.

There’s no question that Rubio’s (praiseworthy in my opinion) role in pushing for a bipartisan compromise on immigration reform has hurt him with many conservatives. But I think his lurch back to the right as he makes common cause with Paul and Ted Cruz in a quixotic effort to shut down the government to stop ObamaCare probably isn’t helping him much either. Though this stand is very much in line with his political roots as a Tea Partier, it looks as if he is trying to appease his critics and that is the kind of thing that smells like (to quote The Godfather) a sign of weakness. It’s not just that, as our Peter Wehner wrote on Friday, his position doesn’t make sense, it’s that it conveys (fairly or unfairly) a sense of panic about his standing with party stalwarts. His absence for the foreign policy debate in which Christie has jousted with libertarians and isolationists in Congress is, as Seth wrote last week, also troubling.

It should also be noted that the same poll also rates Ryan as having the highest favorability ratings of any Republican. That echoes the findings of a Quinnipiac survey we noted earlier this week that showed the former veep candidate as the most popular Republican politician. Though Ryan may prefer to stay in the House rather than put himself through the agony of a presidential candidacy, these are the kinds of numbers that make his many fans salivate about the possibility of his running.

It may be a little premature for the kind of handicapping that GOP activist Patrick Hynes gave us in an interesting Politico article in which he gave Paul a slight edge over Christie in New Hampshire. There’s plenty of time for seeming front-runners to drop out, also-rans to recover, and for new candidates to emerge out of the 2014 midterms. But Hynes is right to note that the strengths of both of these candidates are formidable. They are likely to be telling in early primaries like the one in the Granite State where independents and Democrats, who tend to favor Christie, may vote. As early as it is, the longer Christie and Paul remain ahead of the field, the harder it will be to knock them off once the votes start being counted.

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Wrong on Paul? Christie Showed Leadership

Rand Paul is the quintessential outsider of American politics. Like his ally Ted Cruz, his disdain for the sensibilities of the Washington establishment is matched only by his refusal to play its rules. But the willingness of some members of the conservative establishment to come to Paul’s defense after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took him to task is a disturbing sign of the crackup of a generations-old Republican consensus on foreign and defense policy. George Will’s brush back of Christie wasn’t surprising, as he has always been a critic of post-9/11 American foreign and defense policy. But Peggy Noonan’s attack on Christie in the Wall Street Journal removes all doubt that some of veteran members of the GOP’s chattering class are headed off the reservation.

The timing of this attack, like Paul ally Rep. Justin Amash’s claim that NSA leaker Edward Snowden is a courageous “whistleblower” and not a traitor, is unfortunate. While Noonan characterizes Christie’s attempt to refocus Americans on the reality of a war still being waged on the United States by Islamist terrorists as “manipulative” and as “an appeal to emotion, not to logic,” it is she who is ignoring the larger context of the debate Paul has launched. While all government power deserves scrutiny, her allusion to a “national security” state—the old line of the hard left that has now been appropriated by some on the right—and Orwell’s Winston Smith is disturbing because it bespeaks not the natural skepticism of the conservative but the knee-jerk isolationism of a libertarian movement that has never cared much for America’s global responsibilities or the need to engage with the world and face our enemies. The isolationist impulse that Paul and Amash are seeking to promote is not a case of “conservatives acting like conservatives,” as Noonan put it, but a disturbing retreat that could, as Christie pointed out, produce awful consequences.

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Rand Paul is the quintessential outsider of American politics. Like his ally Ted Cruz, his disdain for the sensibilities of the Washington establishment is matched only by his refusal to play its rules. But the willingness of some members of the conservative establishment to come to Paul’s defense after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took him to task is a disturbing sign of the crackup of a generations-old Republican consensus on foreign and defense policy. George Will’s brush back of Christie wasn’t surprising, as he has always been a critic of post-9/11 American foreign and defense policy. But Peggy Noonan’s attack on Christie in the Wall Street Journal removes all doubt that some of veteran members of the GOP’s chattering class are headed off the reservation.

The timing of this attack, like Paul ally Rep. Justin Amash’s claim that NSA leaker Edward Snowden is a courageous “whistleblower” and not a traitor, is unfortunate. While Noonan characterizes Christie’s attempt to refocus Americans on the reality of a war still being waged on the United States by Islamist terrorists as “manipulative” and as “an appeal to emotion, not to logic,” it is she who is ignoring the larger context of the debate Paul has launched. While all government power deserves scrutiny, her allusion to a “national security” state—the old line of the hard left that has now been appropriated by some on the right—and Orwell’s Winston Smith is disturbing because it bespeaks not the natural skepticism of the conservative but the knee-jerk isolationism of a libertarian movement that has never cared much for America’s global responsibilities or the need to engage with the world and face our enemies. The isolationist impulse that Paul and Amash are seeking to promote is not a case of “conservatives acting like conservatives,” as Noonan put it, but a disturbing retreat that could, as Christie pointed out, produce awful consequences.

Noonan takes particular issue with Christie’s characterization of the libertarian critique of the NSA as well as drone attacks as “esoteric.” But she’s wrong that in doing so he’s ignoring the concerns that some Americans have with government abuse of power or particular instances in which the NSA may have misbehaved. To the contrary, it is Paul, Amash, and now Noonan who are behaving as if homeland security is an abstract concept that has little relevance to the lives of Americans. What he was trying to do was to refocus the party faithful on a fact that Noonan doesn’t see as particularly relevant. This is, after all, about the measures being employed by the government to defend the United States against an enemy that is, contrary to Barack Obama’s boasting and the complacence of the libertarians, very much still alive and determined to kill as many Americans as they can.

Rather than Christie seeking to manipulate our emotions by references to the families of 9/11 victims, it is Paul and others who have stoked paranoia about “Big Brother” government by posing theoretical arguments about drones killing citizens sitting in Starbucks or misleading Americans into thinking that the spooks are reading all of their emails or listening to all of their calls. Noonan plays the same game herself by trying to unnerve us by alluding to articles about the theoretical ability of super spies to use high-tech software to activate microphones on our phones and record our utterances.

No doubt there are people laboring away at the CIA and the NSA coming up with gadgets that James Bond would envy. But, like the guns that municipalities give police that could, if employed by rogues who run amok, be used to kill innocents, we understand that our security services are primarily focused on dealing with the bad guys. While no system is foolproof, if we cannot trust the existing structure of court jurisdiction and congressional oversight, then it is impossible to construct a rationale for any counter-terror operations or efforts to monitor our enemies.

There are dangers from new technologies and there is always a tension between civil liberties and security in a democracy. But the spirit of resistance to government action that Paul represents is far more lacking in balance than Christie’s apt if impatient dismissal of libertarian efforts to obstruct necessary measures to deal with al-Qaeda.

Noonan is right that polls show a growing number of Americans expressing concerns about the NSA and virtually any expression of government power. Given Obama’s overreach on virtually every issue and his inability to take responsibility for disasters like Benghazi, that is understandable. But what Paul is trying to do is to exploit this natural cynicism to fundamentally alter America’s foreign and defense policy. Noonan tries to spin this as an argument between the grass roots and the elites and the “moneymen” who hang out at the Aspen Institute where Christie spoke. That’s a nasty piece of invective that does little to enlighten the debate. That said, it is possible that a libertarian-fueled paranoia on national security efforts will dominate the GOP’s 2016 presidential race. Yet what the New Jersey governor was exhibiting was a quality that Noonan tends to praise in other circumstances: leadership.

What Republicans need right now is someone who isn’t afraid of confronting Paul and his crowd before they hijack a party that has been a bastion of support for a strong America since the Second World War. Jonah Goldberg is right when he noted today in the Los Angeles Times that the assumption that isolationism is a conservative tradition is incorrect. Isolationism has, as he points out, always been as much, if not more, at home on the left as it has ever been on the right. I, for one, didn’t expect Chris Christie to be one of the few Republicans who would have the guts to call out Paul and the libertarians and attempt to arrest the libertarian tide before it allows the Democrats to become the party with a natural edge on foreign and defense policy. Having done so, he deserves a lot better from those who pose as the conservative movement’s elders than he is currently getting.

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The Real GOP Clash: Governors v. Congress

One of the more idiosyncratic contradictions in Chris Christie’s rise to national fame is that his success has been fueled by a crowd-pleasing outspokenness and yet the question of what he stands for has been marked by broad confusion. Christie is happy to tell you what he believes in any given situation, though he somehow remains, ideologically, an enigma. He is currently grappling with the challenge of “proving” his conservatism even though he has generally governed as a conservative.

This may have contributed to his recent spat with Rand Paul over foreign policy. Christie rarely dwells much on labels, or at least does so less than most politicians with national aspirations. So while his attack on Paul’s stance on national security was par for the course, his generalization–that Paul is representative of a dangerous strain of libertarianism–was not. It was an uneasy step into label-obsessed national politics that will be necessary for him to navigate the Republican presidential primary contests. Why this situation rendered the usually sure-footed Christie a bit off-balance is captured well in a few sentences buried in New York magazine’s lengthy cover profile of the New Jersey governor:

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One of the more idiosyncratic contradictions in Chris Christie’s rise to national fame is that his success has been fueled by a crowd-pleasing outspokenness and yet the question of what he stands for has been marked by broad confusion. Christie is happy to tell you what he believes in any given situation, though he somehow remains, ideologically, an enigma. He is currently grappling with the challenge of “proving” his conservatism even though he has generally governed as a conservative.

This may have contributed to his recent spat with Rand Paul over foreign policy. Christie rarely dwells much on labels, or at least does so less than most politicians with national aspirations. So while his attack on Paul’s stance on national security was par for the course, his generalization–that Paul is representative of a dangerous strain of libertarianism–was not. It was an uneasy step into label-obsessed national politics that will be necessary for him to navigate the Republican presidential primary contests. Why this situation rendered the usually sure-footed Christie a bit off-balance is captured well in a few sentences buried in New York magazine’s lengthy cover profile of the New Jersey governor:

For Christie, the villain is always specific: not government, not socialism, not impersonal historical forces, but one moron in particular—the teachers union, or Steve Sweeney, or in this case Rand Paul, the libertarian ophthalmologist, high-mindedly denouncing government while his state is on its dole. “He’s not the first politician to try to use me to get attention,” Christie said later, dismissing Paul’s slight. “And I’m sure he won’t be the last.”

What Christie is doing when he starts arguments with other Republicans—and it is telling that what looks very much like a presidential run has begun with a sequence of fights—is offering his party the chance to preserve its anger, while trading in its revolutionaries for a furious institutionalist.

A good, and often overlooked, example of this is the issue of collective bargaining. Christie was one of the early conservative governors to take on the public unions. But other governors, like Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Rick Snyder in Michigan, went further by attempting to rein in the unions’ organizing power through collective bargaining restrictions or right-to-work laws.

When Christie was asked about collective bargaining, his response was characteristically blunt. “I love collective bargaining,” he said, later adding: “I’ve said let’s get rid of civil service and let everything be collectively bargained, as long as collective bargaining is fair, tough, adversarial and there’s someone in that room representing you,” he said. There are no molehills, only mountains. Christie wasn’t trying to destroy every last vestige of the practice, and so he had to “love” it.

But there was a good–and simple–reason Christie wasn’t fighting to restrict collective bargaining or take other such steps: Walker and Snyder had Republican majorities in their respective state senates, so they could pass legislation on the strength of Republican votes. Christie has no such electoral advantage; his rhetorical agility is essential to his success because he constantly has to put state Republicans on his back and carry them. He isn’t used to having numbers on his side. He can’t outvote the Democrats, so he enlists the public in an uber-populist quest to overwhelm the political opposition. And that brings us to another point of conflict in Christie’s interaction with the national GOP: the relationship between the states and the federal government.

The most famous issue that pitted Christie against the GOP’s conservative congressional caucus was disaster relief after Hurricane Sandy devastated the Jersey Shore. Christie is an emotional and combatant governor who was in no mood to count nickels while his state was suffering. He saw the House’s reticence to rush through an aid bill because of concerns over pork-barrel spending as callous and miserly.

But his fellow Republicans had legitimate concerns. Why does every bill Congress passes have to shell out wasteful spending intended to protect incumbents? And isn’t the callous move here not to temporarily hold up a spending bill but rather to lard up an ostensible relief bill with self-serving earmarks? Nonetheless, such conflicts are an inevitable result of Republican success: the GOP now controls 30 governorships, and the states’ relationship to the federal government will often mean those governors are put at odds with their ideological allies in Congress.

Today’s New York Times carries yet another example. “Worried about the potential impact on the fragile economies in their states,” the Times reports, “Republican governors this weekend warned their counterparts in Congress not to shut down the federal government as part of an effort to block financing for President Obama’s health care law.” It’s not the supposed squishes, either. Scott Walker is opposed to risking a government shutdown over ObamaCare, as is Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, who declined ObamaCare’s expansion of Medicaid in his state, so he can hardly be considered a willing collaborator on the health law.

GOP control of the House and the majority of state governorships will put the two in conflict time and again. It’s not about conservatives vs. RINOs, or establishment vs. the grassroots, or even internationalists vs. libertarians. There is certainly an ideological component to it, but the greater challenge is going to be how conservatives respond when two undeniably conservative factions are in conflict–and they’re both right.

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Christie’s Red Hot But Not in GOP

Chris Christie raised some eyebrows, as well as the expectations of potential supporters, in the last couple of weeks as he traded barbs with Kentucky Senator Rand Paul in a clash of potential Republican presidential contenders. But while a new Quinnipiac poll should encourage those who think the New Jersey governor is the ideal Republican candidate in 2016, it also illustrates his biggest problem: fellow Republicans.

The poll measures the popularity of leading members of both parties in which voters were asked to measure their feelings toward them on a scale of 0 (ice cold) to 100 (red hot). Out of a field of 22 Democrats and Republicans, Christie placed first with a 53.1 percent rating, beating out second-place finisher Hillary Clinton, who had 52.1 percent approval. That’s the good news for Christie. The bad news is that when narrowed down to the 23 percent of the sample that identified themselves as Republicans, he slipped from first to eighth, finishing behind most of his leading rivals for the presidency–even a dark horse like Rick Santorum. While those figures don’t doom Christie’s hopes for the GOP nomination—he still scores a 59.8 percent rating among Republicans and also can point to his first-place standing among independents—it does illustrate the problem of being perceived as the most moderate contender in the field in a party with a base that takes a dim view of such a stance.

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Chris Christie raised some eyebrows, as well as the expectations of potential supporters, in the last couple of weeks as he traded barbs with Kentucky Senator Rand Paul in a clash of potential Republican presidential contenders. But while a new Quinnipiac poll should encourage those who think the New Jersey governor is the ideal Republican candidate in 2016, it also illustrates his biggest problem: fellow Republicans.

The poll measures the popularity of leading members of both parties in which voters were asked to measure their feelings toward them on a scale of 0 (ice cold) to 100 (red hot). Out of a field of 22 Democrats and Republicans, Christie placed first with a 53.1 percent rating, beating out second-place finisher Hillary Clinton, who had 52.1 percent approval. That’s the good news for Christie. The bad news is that when narrowed down to the 23 percent of the sample that identified themselves as Republicans, he slipped from first to eighth, finishing behind most of his leading rivals for the presidency–even a dark horse like Rick Santorum. While those figures don’t doom Christie’s hopes for the GOP nomination—he still scores a 59.8 percent rating among Republicans and also can point to his first-place standing among independents—it does illustrate the problem of being perceived as the most moderate contender in the field in a party with a base that takes a dim view of such a stance.

The survey supplies Christie’s supporters with a powerful argument about electability. The New Jersey governor has a unique appeal that transcends the fans he originally won on the right for his YouTube videos in which he berates liberals and unions and plays the kind of tough-guy blunt politician that voters can’t get enough of. Many on the right may never completely forgive him for hugging President Obama in the week before the election last fall during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, but Christie’s ability to appeal to centrists, independents, and even some Democrats could make him a formidable general election candidate. But the fact that he has a 53.2 percent rating among Democrats while no other GOP figure scores higher than 32.9 percent (Marco Rubio) is exactly why a lot of Republicans can’t stand him.

The contrast between Christie’s overall numbers and his also-ran finish among Republicans is not the only interesting tidbit from this poll. The fact that Rep. Paul Ryan is the top-rated figure among Republicans with 68.7 percent might help fuel interest in a presidential run by the party’s 2012 veep candidate. Senator Ted Cruz’s second-place rank (65.6 percent) will also give him a boost. But with that pair and Rubio, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Senator Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, and Rick Santorum also scoring 60 percent or higher, it’s clear that there is no single front runner even if it is obvious that Christie might struggle to win in primaries or caucuses where only Republicans are allowed to vote.

Should Hillary Clinton run, there isn’t much doubt that she will be the Democratic nominee in 2016 and her first-place standing in her party with 77.7 percent exceeds even that of President Obama. What is interesting is that freshman Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts actually ranks third in popularity with all voters at 49.2, beating out Obama with 47.6 percent. Warren trails only Clinton, Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden among Democrats. Should Clinton not run for some unknown reason, Warren’s ability to galvanize the party’s left-wing base could make her an interesting possibility for a long shot upset.

These numbers give us only the broadest possible view of the battle for 2016, two years before the real battle for the nominations will begin. But they do demonstrate that trying to maintain a balance between general election and primary popularity will be even more difficult for Republicans in 2016 than it was in 2012 and 2008 when the GOP wound up nominating a relative moderate to the dismay of much of their base. Conservatives may be wrong to think that Mitt Romney and John McCain’s relative moderation was the reason Barack Obama beat them both and that 2016 is the year to nominate someone who will appeal to their party’s grass roots. But that conviction is not going to be an easy obstacle for someone like Christie to overcome. If, as I wrote last week, the battle between Christie and some of his rivals on foreign and defense policy issues is a fight for the soul of the party, his apparent ability to win in November may still not persuade many in his party to drop their objections to him.

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Tom Cotton and the Foreign Policy Debate

The decision by Tom Cotton, a rising Republican star and congressman from Arkansas, to challenge Democratic Senator Mark Pryor fits seamlessly into the news of the week. Cotton’s reputation as a foreign-policy hawk and a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as his age (36), will undoubtedly cast him as heralding the arrival of reinforcements for the GOP’s internationalist wing.

In Politico’s story on Cotton’s candidacy the author even gives more prominence to his role as a “counterweight” to Rand Paul and Ted Cruz (though Cotton shares Cruz’s Ivy League pedigree) than to the possibility Cotton could help the GOP win back the Senate, though the latter is arguably the more significant aspect of his candidacy. But national-security rhetoric is what, still more than a year out from this Senate race, the political sphere is looking for, and on this Cotton doesn’t disappoint. There are few young Republicans willing to say things like “I think that George Bush largely did have it right,” as Cotton said to Politico in an earlier interview. He went on to state:

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The decision by Tom Cotton, a rising Republican star and congressman from Arkansas, to challenge Democratic Senator Mark Pryor fits seamlessly into the news of the week. Cotton’s reputation as a foreign-policy hawk and a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as his age (36), will undoubtedly cast him as heralding the arrival of reinforcements for the GOP’s internationalist wing.

In Politico’s story on Cotton’s candidacy the author even gives more prominence to his role as a “counterweight” to Rand Paul and Ted Cruz (though Cotton shares Cruz’s Ivy League pedigree) than to the possibility Cotton could help the GOP win back the Senate, though the latter is arguably the more significant aspect of his candidacy. But national-security rhetoric is what, still more than a year out from this Senate race, the political sphere is looking for, and on this Cotton doesn’t disappoint. There are few young Republicans willing to say things like “I think that George Bush largely did have it right,” as Cotton said to Politico in an earlier interview. He went on to state:

That we can’t wait for dangers to gather on the horizon, that we can’t let the world’s most dangerous people get the world’s most dangerous weapons and that we have to be willing to defend our interests and the safety of our citizens abroad even if we don’t get the approval of the United Nations.

On this, Cotton’s Senate candidacy joins that of Liz Cheney, daughter of the former vice president, who is running a primary challenge against Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi. Though foreign policy doesn’t usually play much of a role in Senate elections (or even, arguably, presidential elections), this debate should not surprise. The GOP is (mostly) in the wilderness, a time when parties traditionally look inward and chart their future path back to power.

The Republican Party’s identity on fiscal issues is more settled than its foreign policy identity. Neither the libertarians nor the internationalists campaign for tax increases, but they do disagree on foreign affairs. Just how even that disagreement is remains up for debate. When asked whether retrenchment chic is gaining a wide following in the GOP, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol said: “I think Christie-Cotton is much more likely in 2016 than Paul-Amash.”

That is true enough in that particular hypothetical, and the temporary halt in hostilities called by Chris Christie and Rand Paul may give it an added boost. Paul proposed a beer summit between the two men, an invitation Christie rejected while taking a parting shot at Paul. How this ceasefire came about can be interpreted in one of two ways. Paul is surely hoping it makes him look mature and statesmanlike, sending out a peace offering and backing off, citing concerns for the party. Christie, on the other hand, seemed happy to keep swinging away, as if Paul was the one who had had enough.

Paul is also coming off a setback in the Senate, where his attempt to cancel American foreign aid to Egypt was brushed aside by his party and soundly defeated on the Senate floor. Christie may think his side has the momentum–and in any case he enjoys a good verbal sparring too much to want to pipe down. But the interesting question here relates more to what each combatant has to lose in the exchange. Christie’s weakness in a presidential primary contest would be the suspicion with which the conservative base views him after his embrace of the president. For Paul it’s the question of his mainstream appeal and electability.

Paul hinted at this aspect of the dust-up in his beer-summit proposal: “I think it’s time to dial it down. I think we’ve got enough Democrats to attack. I’ve said my piece on this. I don’t like Republicans attacking Republicans because it doesn’t help the party grow bigger.” But that’s not exactly accurate in this instance: Christie probably thinks he can win over independents and undecideds by establishing himself as a mainstream alternative to a supposedly fringe element in his party.

Whether or not Paul actually belongs to a “fringe” is far from settled. As I’ve written before, there has always been a strain of conservatives who genuinely worry that the national security state represents a military twin of the New Deal: expensive, secretive–and now, with the NSA scandals, seemingly intrusive–bureaucracies whose budgets grow inexorably even at a time when conservatives broadly favor austerity.

Those who support a robust American presence in the world counter, correctly, that Western prosperity relies on the peace kept by America and the orderly system of global trade that is highly dependent on the U.S. In many cases foreign aid, too, is a bargain–for the influence it earns the American government abroad, the prevention of armed conflict in some cases, and even the direct economic benefits it secures by spurring foreign investment in the American defense sector. Christie may not have the ear of the base when he makes these points–and the same can be said for veteran senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham–but Cotton does, and that’s why his candidacy is already generating this attention, and will continue to do so.

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Paul, Christie, and the Soul of the GOP

For a press corps that can’t wait to start covering the 2016 horse race, the exchanges this past week between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul are a godsend. The back and forth between the two, which continued today, is unusual even for potential primary opponents since this is the sort of hatchet work left either to surrogates or the heat of battle during formal debates. But in this case it makes sense for both of them to be doing it and to start as early as possible for two reasons.

One is that these shots are not so much aimed at the target as to establish their bona fides as the leading proponent of their point of view. Paul is looking to ensure that he, and not Ted Cruz or any other potential dark horse, is the preeminent advocate of the libertarian position on foreign and defense policy. By the same token, Christie has stolen a march on Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan (both of whom also have mainstream pro-defense views and might be competing for the same donors) by taking on Paul. If the field is large in 2016, there will, in essence, be two Republican primaries in which each side of this divide will choose a candidate that will probably be the finalists for the GOP nomination.

But there is something else here at stake that explains why both think it worthwhile to start conducting this debate at least two years before even the preliminary period of the 2016 race begins. Though it appears to be a nasty quarrel between two arrogant and ambitious politicians who know the other is in his way, the harsh nature of the comments of the two directed at each other illustrate that what is going on here is nothing less than a battle for the soul of the Republican Party.

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For a press corps that can’t wait to start covering the 2016 horse race, the exchanges this past week between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul are a godsend. The back and forth between the two, which continued today, is unusual even for potential primary opponents since this is the sort of hatchet work left either to surrogates or the heat of battle during formal debates. But in this case it makes sense for both of them to be doing it and to start as early as possible for two reasons.

One is that these shots are not so much aimed at the target as to establish their bona fides as the leading proponent of their point of view. Paul is looking to ensure that he, and not Ted Cruz or any other potential dark horse, is the preeminent advocate of the libertarian position on foreign and defense policy. By the same token, Christie has stolen a march on Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan (both of whom also have mainstream pro-defense views and might be competing for the same donors) by taking on Paul. If the field is large in 2016, there will, in essence, be two Republican primaries in which each side of this divide will choose a candidate that will probably be the finalists for the GOP nomination.

But there is something else here at stake that explains why both think it worthwhile to start conducting this debate at least two years before even the preliminary period of the 2016 race begins. Though it appears to be a nasty quarrel between two arrogant and ambitious politicians who know the other is in his way, the harsh nature of the comments of the two directed at each other illustrate that what is going on here is nothing less than a battle for the soul of the Republican Party.

To recap the hostilities, Christie kicked off the dustup by denouncing the way the Republican Party is drifting toward a libertarian approach to foreign policy that seems too willing to take the country back to a September 10th mentality and, when asked if that included Paul, he responded in the affirmative and said those politicians grandstanding on the issue should sit down with 9/11 victims’ families.

Paul shot back last night in vintage fashion by saying that Christie was tearing down the Republican Party and that it “was sad and cheap that he would use the cloak of 9/11 victims” to carry on the dispute. He then went even further and said “If he cared about protecting this country, maybe he wouldn’t be in this give me, give me, give me all of the money that you have in Washington,” a clear reference to Christie’s tirade about the way some GOP conservatives held up Hurricane Sandy aid to the Northeast.

Christie fired back today by calling out Rand as complicit in the congressional pork system by pointing out that New Jersey gets only 60 cents back from Washington for every tax dollar it sends to the capital while Kentucky garners $1.50.

Clearly, as Christie observed, the argument has gotten personal between the two. In the context of the two virtual primaries that divide the Republican Party, it doesn’t do either man any harm to be perceived by his supporters as taking on the leader of the other side. Though we are literally years away from the first debates or votes cast in caucuses and primaries, the sooner any candidate establishes himself as the leading voice of one of the two main camps in the party, the better off he will be.

But the food fight aspect of these exchanges shouldn’t blind us to the deadly serious nature of this debate.

As last week’s House vote on the NSA metadata collection showed, a genuine schism on national defense is developing within the Republican Party. With nearly half of the GOP caucus prepared to embrace positions championed by Paul, Cruz, and Rep. Justin Amash in which the war on Islamist terrorism is essentially shelved, the GOP may be about to abandon its long-held position as a bastion of support for national defense and a forward American foreign policy that has carried them to victory in the past.

That this debate is being conducted largely on the basis of exaggerations and distortions of the truth makes it all the more frustrating for Republicans who see their party drifting toward a form of isolationism. As Walter Pincus pointed out in an op-ed published yesterday in the Washington Post, Paul, Cruz, and Amash have been able to rally support for this so-called libertarian cause largely because they have helped confuse Americans into thinking the NSA is reading their emails and listening to their calls in violation of the Constitution. This isn’t true. What the NSA has done is not only constitutional and being conducted under the jurisdiction of the courts and with congressional oversight; it has also foiled numerous terrorist plots.

As I wrote last week, Christie’s decision to speak up on this issue in a pointed manner, especially when other potential GOP presidential contenders who share his views have been either distracted by other issues like Ryan or pointedly silent like Rubio, has already given him a leg up on them among mainstream Republicans and donors. Moreover, his ability to take a shot and then return it twofold in this manner shows that he will be a formidable primary opponent.

Paul may have thought his filibuster and the distrust of government that has been fed by Obama’s scandals and abuses of power would be enough to allow him to break through from his extremist libertarian base. If last week’s NSA vote is any indication, such a belief is not unfounded. But what Christie has done is shown that this conquest will not only not be unopposed but will generate fierce opposition from the party’s most articulate, popular and confrontational figure. That will not only encourage others who disagree with Paul to jump into the fray but begin the process of reaffirming the GOP as the party most associated with a strong national defense.

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Where Is Marco Rubio?

In its analysis of the latest round in the Rand Paul-Chris Christie dust-up over the future of conservative foreign policy, the Washington Post writes: “Typically, a fight produces a winner and a loser. But that’s not the case in the spat between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). In their clash over national security ideology, both men stand to gain politically in the near term.” That may be true, but it isn’t the case that there is no loser here. It can be plausibly argued that in this current bout Christie and Paul both win, but that someone else still loses: Marco Rubio.

Rubio has been noticeably quiet as the conservative movement seeks to shape its approach to the world for the next presidential election. Yet it was Rubio who was the first 2016 prospect to grapple with the challenges of maintaining American global engagement in the post-Cold War world, and certainly in the post-Iraq and Afghanistan world. Rubio entered the Senate as a Tea Party favorite who advocated a robust American foreign policy. He sensed that despite the political rhetoric about bullying Americans–especially from Europe and the Middle East–those grandstanding politicians still retained the hope that America would do the thankless jobs that have fallen on its shoulders for over half a century. And as a 2012 Miami Herald profile of Rubio revealed, the senator from Florida was right:

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In its analysis of the latest round in the Rand Paul-Chris Christie dust-up over the future of conservative foreign policy, the Washington Post writes: “Typically, a fight produces a winner and a loser. But that’s not the case in the spat between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). In their clash over national security ideology, both men stand to gain politically in the near term.” That may be true, but it isn’t the case that there is no loser here. It can be plausibly argued that in this current bout Christie and Paul both win, but that someone else still loses: Marco Rubio.

Rubio has been noticeably quiet as the conservative movement seeks to shape its approach to the world for the next presidential election. Yet it was Rubio who was the first 2016 prospect to grapple with the challenges of maintaining American global engagement in the post-Cold War world, and certainly in the post-Iraq and Afghanistan world. Rubio entered the Senate as a Tea Party favorite who advocated a robust American foreign policy. He sensed that despite the political rhetoric about bullying Americans–especially from Europe and the Middle East–those grandstanding politicians still retained the hope that America would do the thankless jobs that have fallen on its shoulders for over half a century. And as a 2012 Miami Herald profile of Rubio revealed, the senator from Florida was right:

Rubio said that, while foreign heads of state and politicians, bash the United States publicly, their tone changes in private.

“They’re begging for U.S. influence and leadership,” he said. “They’re not threatened by us. They’re not scared of us. They’re not worried about the United States being involved because we have a track record.”

That feeling was reinforced “by driving through the streets of Tripoli and seeing pro-American graffiti on the walls. Of having people come up to me on the streets and thank the United States – thank you America for what you did – by the enthusiastic greeting we received in the hospital that we visited or people we met people in the square.”

That view of international relations, gleaned from interpersonal exchanges rather than the stock anti-Americanism found in the media, informed Rubio’s belief in American global engagement. Just before that Miami Herald profile was published, Rubio gave a major foreign policy address at the Brookings Institution in which he acknowledged both the successes of the American-led postwar world and the challenge of post-Cold War superpower status:

So this is the world America made, but what is the role for America now? Is now finally the time for us to mind our own business? Is now the time for us to allow others to lead? Is now the time for us to play the role of equal partner?

I always start by reminding people that what happens all over the world is our business. Every aspect of lives is directly impacted by global events. The security of our cities is connected to the security of small hamlets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Our cost of living, the safety of our food, and the value of the things we invent, make, and sell are just a few examples of everyday aspects of our lives that are directly related to events abroad and make it impossible for us to focus only on our issues here at home.

The next question I am asked is why doesn’t someone else lead for a change? Why do we always have to be taking care of all the problems of the world? Isn’t it time for someone else to step up?

I always begin my answer to that question with a question of my own. If we start doing less, who’s going to do more? For example, would a world order where China, at least as we know it right now, was the leading power be as benignly disposed to the political and economic aspirations of other nations as we are?

This is not a detailed exposition of precisely how America should address every foreign policy challenge, but a statement of purpose. It was also interpreted by many to represent Rubio’s grand entrance onto the national stage with regard to foreign affairs. And yet the truth is that as time passes, Rubio’s voice only seems to fade. And now with the debate about the future of conservative foreign policy breaking out into the open, Rubio’s silence is deafening.

Rubio’s decision to stand aside as this debate plays out has created a vacuum. Countering Rand Paul’s still vague, but seemingly retrenchment-centric, foreign policy has been left to Chris Christie–a governor without much foreign policy experience–and Congressman Peter King. Both seem to be considering a run for the presidency, though Christie is far more likely than King to ultimately run. Rubio had been collecting the experience and authority to be the advocate of an engaged America on the 2016 debate stage. Yet that debate has started already.

The obvious explanation for Rubio’s mysterious disappearance from the foreign policy debate is that he has raised his voice on other issues and is boxed in. He led the effort in the Senate to reform the nation’s immigration system, which has caused his stock among the party’s base to plummet. He has tried to win them back by stepping into the national abortion fight, offering to sponsor a bill that would restrict abortion in a way that is popular nationally but especially among the conservative grassroots.

And the assumption is that taking on Rand Paul over domestic surveillance would once again put him at odds with the base. It’s actually unclear whether retrenchment chic is truly sweeping the conservative movement for three reasons. First, Paul is the only high-profile politician occupying that space right now; as I wrote late last week, other libertarians like Justin Amash actually favor foreign intervention and sanctions. Second, we don’t actually know if Paul himself feels this way, because he has been unclear on certain aspects of the issue–evidence, perhaps, that he isn’t sure the base actually believes in retrenchment either. And third, Rubio’s silence has contributed to this confusion because there is no erudite counterweight to Paul, certainly not one with grassroots and Tea Party bona fides.

There is good reason, in other words, this debate was always expected to be between Paul and Rubio. Paul showed up. Whether or not he has an apparently justifiable reason for it, Rubio has not.

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