Commentary Magazine


Topic: Chris Christie

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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Is Rand Paul’s Foreign Policy “Libertarian”?

Chris Christie’s criticism of the brand of libertarian foreign policy championed by Rand Paul, and Paul’s immediate response to Christie, seemed to energize Paul’s supporters and touch off an intra-party debate on national security long in the making. But the parameters of that debate were far less significant than the tone suggested. As Jonathan wrote, Christie made the comments on a panel with other Republican governors and was in the minority not for his beliefs but for his willingness to state them (in Christie’s classically confrontational style, no less).

The other governors at the event–Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence, and Scott Walker–may not have been willing to engage Paul but neither did they seem opposed to Christie’s general perspective on foreign affairs. Indeed, the issue at play is domestic surveillance–an issue that was part of Paul’s memorable filibuster. But beyond concerns about the surveillance state, there isn’t much indication that even those assumed to be on Paul’s side actually believe in American retrenchment from the world. The most interesting politician on that score is not Christie or Marco Rubio (or the others, like Paul Ryan, on record supporting a robust foreign policy) but rather the congressman who spearheaded the attempt to curb the NSA’s scope: Justin Amash.

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Chris Christie’s criticism of the brand of libertarian foreign policy championed by Rand Paul, and Paul’s immediate response to Christie, seemed to energize Paul’s supporters and touch off an intra-party debate on national security long in the making. But the parameters of that debate were far less significant than the tone suggested. As Jonathan wrote, Christie made the comments on a panel with other Republican governors and was in the minority not for his beliefs but for his willingness to state them (in Christie’s classically confrontational style, no less).

The other governors at the event–Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence, and Scott Walker–may not have been willing to engage Paul but neither did they seem opposed to Christie’s general perspective on foreign affairs. Indeed, the issue at play is domestic surveillance–an issue that was part of Paul’s memorable filibuster. But beyond concerns about the surveillance state, there isn’t much indication that even those assumed to be on Paul’s side actually believe in American retrenchment from the world. The most interesting politician on that score is not Christie or Marco Rubio (or the others, like Paul Ryan, on record supporting a robust foreign policy) but rather the congressman who spearheaded the attempt to curb the NSA’s scope: Justin Amash.

Amash was recently profiled by National Review’s John J. Miller, in which Miller noted that Amash was touted by Reason magazine as “the next Ron Paul.” In his interview with Miller, however, Amash made a point of differentiating himself from the elder Paul on issues including foreign policy. (Amash said “Ron Paul was an important educational figure, not a typical politician,” quite far from a ringing endorsement of Paul’s congressional activity.)

In an earlier interview with Reason, Amash provided much more insight into how he views his libertarian foreign policy. Here is a telling series of exchanges between Amash and Reason editor Nick Gillespie:

reason: What about in Afghanistan and Iraq? Because there was an authorization for the use of military force. Is that still binding? What’s wrong with that as a blank check for the president to keep prosecuting the war on terror?

Amash: I think it’s okay for Congress to give authorizations that—it doesn’t have to read “Declaration of War.” I think what the Founders really intended was that Congress would be the starting point for all this. So whether you call it an authorization or a declaration of war is not as big a deal to me. But the war in Afghanistan, that’s the longest war in U.S history, and now—

reason: Should we have invaded Afghanistan?

Amash: I think so, at the time. And it should have been for a limited purpose: to take out the terrorists who targeted us on 9/11.

reason: You have been an outspoken critic of the use of drones, particularly in countries we’re not officially at war with. But going after bin Laden in Pakistan, say: Is that legal under the authorization that sanctioned intervening in Afghanistan?

Amash: I think so, to go after bin Laden. He was clearly in charge of the operation and I think it was legal to go after him. There are a lot of other situations where it’s more questionable. If we’re going after people who have nothing to do with 9/11, whether they are terrorists or not, it’s the president’s job to come back to Congress and say, “This is who we’re going after and this is why,” and for Congress to give the authorization.

That was Amash justifying the legality of the Iraq War while supporting the invasion of Afghanistan and sending the military into Pakistan to get bin Laden. Elsewhere in that same interview, Amash struck a thoughtful balance on Syria, and gives the following answer when asked about sanctions and military action against Iran:

Iran is a much more real threat. They speak out against the United States on a regular basis; it’s pretty clear they’re trying to develop a nuclear weapon. Sanctions that are directed toward preventing them from getting weapons of mass destruction, I think those sanctions are useful and helpful in the short run. I’m not sure you’d want to use them for 20 years.

But there are other sanctions that are targeted at the people of Iran. Those are not beneficial to the United States. If I felt Iran was a genuine threat to the United States, I would give the president authorization to do what’s necessary.

Amash also spoke about the emotional significance of the 9/11 attacks to him and how the event spurred his increased interest in politics. None of this is to suggest that Amash’s foreign policy priorities are indistinguishable from those of, say, John McCain. But it’s important to understand the limited scope of Rand Paul’s argument on the NSA. It has obvious populist appeal and is well worth the discussion Paul has raised.

But the question of whether Paul’s opposition to drones and wiretapping portends a libertarian shift in GOP foreign policy obscures the more important question: What, exactly, do we mean when we say “libertarian foreign policy”? Rand Paul has been vague enough on his own worldview, aside from the use of drones, to keep this question unanswered. But if Paul wants a major retrenchment from the world and a more isolationist foreign policy, he does not appear to be speaking for any major politician but himself–and that includes those we think of as staunch libertarians.

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Is Christie the Foreign Policy Candidate?

In the last month, conservatives looking for a possible 2016 presidential candidate with a serious approach to defense and foreign policy were starting to wonder if they would be stuck with outliers rather than frontrunners. The only reason why people like former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton and Rep. Peter King—men who are respected voices on these issues but not likely to have a chance at the nomination—were getting even minimal attention for their presidential trial balloons was the fact that all of the likely contenders have been ignoring the question of America’s need to maintain a forward position in the world and in the war on Islamist terror.

Even worse, the increasing popularity of libertarian figures like Senator Rand Paul and, to a lesser extent, Senator Ted Cruz seemed to indicate that the Republican Party was abandoning its long stance as the political bulwark of a strong America in favor of a new isolationism. The willingness of so many Republicans to join Rep. Justin Amash, another libertarian foe of anti-terror measures, in a House vote to abolish the National Security Agency’s phone surveillance program on Wednesday—and the unusual deference they got from House Speaker John Boehner—underlined this concern.

But yesterday a leading figure in the GOP and someone seen as a formidable presidential possibility for 2016 finally fired back at Paul. Speaking at panel at the Aspen Institute, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie denounced the effort to pull back on anti-terror measures as “dangerous” and warned that those—like Paul—who are attempting to craft an American retreat from the world are playing with fire. In speaking in this manner, Christie put himself on record as endorsing the policies of President George W. Bush that have been largely continued by President Obama as necessary, and served notice that Paul will be strongly opposed by Republicans who don’t want their party to be hijacked by isolationists. In doing so, Christie not only indicated that he is prepared to run in part on foreign policy issues but may embolden other possible candidates with similar views to his on this question, like Senator Marco Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan, to do the same.

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In the last month, conservatives looking for a possible 2016 presidential candidate with a serious approach to defense and foreign policy were starting to wonder if they would be stuck with outliers rather than frontrunners. The only reason why people like former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton and Rep. Peter King—men who are respected voices on these issues but not likely to have a chance at the nomination—were getting even minimal attention for their presidential trial balloons was the fact that all of the likely contenders have been ignoring the question of America’s need to maintain a forward position in the world and in the war on Islamist terror.

Even worse, the increasing popularity of libertarian figures like Senator Rand Paul and, to a lesser extent, Senator Ted Cruz seemed to indicate that the Republican Party was abandoning its long stance as the political bulwark of a strong America in favor of a new isolationism. The willingness of so many Republicans to join Rep. Justin Amash, another libertarian foe of anti-terror measures, in a House vote to abolish the National Security Agency’s phone surveillance program on Wednesday—and the unusual deference they got from House Speaker John Boehner—underlined this concern.

But yesterday a leading figure in the GOP and someone seen as a formidable presidential possibility for 2016 finally fired back at Paul. Speaking at panel at the Aspen Institute, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie denounced the effort to pull back on anti-terror measures as “dangerous” and warned that those—like Paul—who are attempting to craft an American retreat from the world are playing with fire. In speaking in this manner, Christie put himself on record as endorsing the policies of President George W. Bush that have been largely continued by President Obama as necessary, and served notice that Paul will be strongly opposed by Republicans who don’t want their party to be hijacked by isolationists. In doing so, Christie not only indicated that he is prepared to run in part on foreign policy issues but may embolden other possible candidates with similar views to his on this question, like Senator Marco Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan, to do the same.

Paul immediately fired back at Christie saying he’s against terror but only wants to preserve the Constitution. But he’s made it clear that what he wants is a massive pullback of efforts to seek out and fight Islamist terrorists as well as a general retreat from America’s position as a global power with commensurate responsibilities. Paul has tried to call this stance “realism,” but stripped of its rhetorical trappings that attempt to differentiate his positions from those of his crackpot father, former presidential candidate Ron Paul, it is merely warmed-over isolationism. Paul has sought to play upon the war-weariness of Americans after Iraq and Afghanistan to bring this isolationist trend into the mainstream from the margins and fever swamps of the far right and far left, where it has dwelt since before World War II. And to judge by Wednesday’s House vote and his own poll ratings, he’s succeeding.

But as Christie pointed out, anyone who wants to cut back on the Bush/Obama anti-terror measures should come to New York or New Jersey and meet the families of 9/11 victims. Programs such as the NSA metadata mining have helped stop numerous attempts to repeat that atrocity. As Rep. Tom Cotton pointed out on the floor of the House on Wednesday, America is still at war and Republicans who ignore this fact are doing the country as well as their party a grave disservice.

The notion that most grass roots Republicans want the GOP to become the anti-war or the anti-anti-terror party is a fiction. As Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, another member of the panel on which Christie spoke as well as another possible presidential candidate, pointed out, the attempt to transform the Republican Party in this manner is largely the function of “a few loud and vocal people talking in Washington and I don’t think that necessarily reflects where the party is.”

Walker is not only right about that, but his willingness to state this fact should stand as a rebuke to those pundits and politicians who have assumed that all Tea Party supporters are natural allies of Paul and the libertarians. The Republican base believes in limited government and opposes President Obama’s massive expansion of the federal leviathan. But it is not a bastion of isolationism and paranoia about national defense efforts. Most Republicans are capable of making a distinction between the need to cut back on unnecessary governmental intrusions into the public sector and the all-too-necessary responsibility of Washington to provide for the national defense.

Rand Paul may have thought his path to the presidential nomination had no serious obstacles on the foreign policy front, as so many in the top ranks of the GOP leadership seemed to fear to take him on after seeing the way Republicans cheered his filibuster on drone attacks last February. But Chris Christie’s comments as well as those of Scott Walker show that any such confidence is misplaced. It’s a long way until 2016 and there’s no telling who will turn out to be Paul’s chief antagonist on foreign policy. But whoever it turns out to be, the assumption that the libertarians will have the advantage may turn out to be a fallacy. 

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GOP’s Mixed Signals on Immigration

Earlier this week, John Stanton wrote a detailed piece on why Republicans in the House who vote for comprehensive immigration reform are not actually putting themselves at high risk of getting challenged in a Republican primary. Then National Journal released the results of its latest poll, which showed that Republicans support passing immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship as long as it toughens border security, backing up Stanton’s reporting.

But then Politico published a story on Marco Rubio’s immigration “stumbles,” arguing that even though the bill passed the Senate, conservative anger over the bill means that “this isn’t where Rubio wanted to be.” They, too, can point to new polling to back them up: the latest Washington Post/ABC poll finds a majority of Republicans oppose a path to citizenship for those here illegally. I sympathize with the Post’s Greg Sargent when he writes today of the conventional wisdom that conservative voters oppose a path to citizenship and asks, “Can’t some crack polling guru type get to the bottom of whether it’s even true or not?”

If we work backwards, however, it’s a bit easier to get to the bottom of this. The general sense of momentum is currently against the immigration bill, at least as passed by the Senate. But Stanton’s reporting is heavily documented, and the National Journal poll gives respondents enough choices to get a reasonably accurate read on where they’d like the bill to go from here. So what we’re looking for is an explanation for why there can be broad support for the aims of the bill that still puts Rubio in a difficult spot and which supports the idea that the bill is in trouble.

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Earlier this week, John Stanton wrote a detailed piece on why Republicans in the House who vote for comprehensive immigration reform are not actually putting themselves at high risk of getting challenged in a Republican primary. Then National Journal released the results of its latest poll, which showed that Republicans support passing immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship as long as it toughens border security, backing up Stanton’s reporting.

But then Politico published a story on Marco Rubio’s immigration “stumbles,” arguing that even though the bill passed the Senate, conservative anger over the bill means that “this isn’t where Rubio wanted to be.” They, too, can point to new polling to back them up: the latest Washington Post/ABC poll finds a majority of Republicans oppose a path to citizenship for those here illegally. I sympathize with the Post’s Greg Sargent when he writes today of the conventional wisdom that conservative voters oppose a path to citizenship and asks, “Can’t some crack polling guru type get to the bottom of whether it’s even true or not?”

If we work backwards, however, it’s a bit easier to get to the bottom of this. The general sense of momentum is currently against the immigration bill, at least as passed by the Senate. But Stanton’s reporting is heavily documented, and the National Journal poll gives respondents enough choices to get a reasonably accurate read on where they’d like the bill to go from here. So what we’re looking for is an explanation for why there can be broad support for the aims of the bill that still puts Rubio in a difficult spot and which supports the idea that the bill is in trouble.

The answer, I think, has a lot to do with the 2012 Republican primary election and the downfall of Rick Perry. Though Perry’s debate performances obviously had much to do with his freefall in the polls, the issue that hurt him the most was immigration. I think it goes too far to credit Perry’s pro-immigration stance solely or even mostly for his primary woes—Newt Gingrich, after all, took an almost identical position on immigration and it didn’t slow him down—but there’s no question it was a major factor. The pushback Perry got for telling voters to “have a heart” when dealing with illegal immigrants and their children inspired Mitt Romney to bolt to his right on the issue and make his infamous suggestion that illegal immigrants “self-deport.”

Most Republicans learned a lesson from that incident—but they didn’t all learn the same lesson. Republicans who were inclined to support immigration reform believed Romney’s self-deportation idea was the inevitable result of trying to square a circle: the status quo on immigration policy in America is a wreck, but if you want to pander to border hawks without ludicrously advocating for the deportation of 11 million immigrants, your policy essentially amounts to wishing the problem away. And expressing the sentiment that you want those immigrants to somehow disappear while also not offering a realistic solution to the immigration impasse is a surefire way to get clobbered in a national election among immigrant groups, which Romney did.

But those more inclined to believe a bipartisan immigration reform plan would simply amount to a mass amnesty without alleviating the conditions that brought the crisis about in the first place learned a very different lesson. They saw Perry’s collapse in the polls following his immigration remarks as proof that Republican voters by and large had rejected the McCain-led reform effort a few years earlier and were plain fed-up with the fact that they were now being called heartless for simply not changing their minds.

The message they heard was: What part of “No” don’t you understand? And though early-state Republican primary voters are not usually thought to be representative of all right-of-center Americans (it’s become more of a tradition to complain about the Iowa straw poll and caucuses than to treat them as a bellwether), the presidential candidates drive the news more than other politicians, and they drive the perception of the party as well.

That’s why it was so significant for Rubio to lead the reform effort, and why he tried to get Rand Paul to sign on. The current zeitgeist of the party’s grass roots is not going to be divined by listening to where Lindsey Graham or Steve King stands on an issue. The public is always going to pay more attention to the politicians who may be their next president—or at least a major party nominee. Rubio may support this bill, but Ted Cruz voted against it, as did Rand Paul. Bobby Jindal may be sympathetic to the cause of immigration reform, but he came out against the Senate bill too. Both Scott Walker and Chris Christie seemed reluctant to specifically endorse the Senate bill.

What you have, then, is Marco Rubio supporting his own bill—and pretty much everyone else on the 2016 slate, on both sides of the immigration debate, treating Rubio’s bill as if it were radioactive. It’s not surprising that different polls received conflicting answers depending on the wording of the poll question, but neither is it surprising that when it comes to prominent prospective GOP presidential candidates, Rubio has essentially been left to stand alone, and the public has noticed.

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2016 Election Gets Its First Endorsement

Did you think the seemingly endless 2012 presidential election started way too soon? If so, you weren’t alone. But we may think back on that long slog as a brief interlude long before we get to November 2016. Though the discussion about the next presidential election began even before Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney, the 2016 race may have begun for all intents and purposes yesterday when the first official endorsement was announced. Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill said she was backing Hillary Clinton in an official statement that was posted on the ReadyforHillary.com website. McCaskill’s backing for Clinton is hardly a surprise but the timing may indicate a deliberate strategy on the part of the former first lady and secretary of state. The announcement may be the first of a series of high-profile endorsements that will occur at regular intervals over the course of the next year as Clinton seeks to do something that only incumbent presidents can generally aspire to: clear the field of all serious competition among Democrats.

Clinton’s not the only likely presidential contender making noises these days. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who shapes up as a first-tier candidate for the Republican nod, has been concentrating on his re-election race this year. But this morning on “Morning Joe” he showed he was thinking 2016 by taking a shot at President Obama for what seemed like the first time since Hurricane Sandy when he mocked his belated “charm offensive” with the GOP.

But both Clinton and Christie (whose late night TV appearances have kept him in the public eye even on days when he’s not making news), might want to pause and consider whether their high profile this early in the run-up to 2016 is entirely a good thing. Clinton’s favorability ratings have dropped drastically since leaving the State Department and returning, albeit sparingly, back into the political fray. Indeed, a recent Gallup poll may indicate that the best thing for a 2016 contender would be to keep their profile low at this incredibly early stage of the contest.

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Did you think the seemingly endless 2012 presidential election started way too soon? If so, you weren’t alone. But we may think back on that long slog as a brief interlude long before we get to November 2016. Though the discussion about the next presidential election began even before Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney, the 2016 race may have begun for all intents and purposes yesterday when the first official endorsement was announced. Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill said she was backing Hillary Clinton in an official statement that was posted on the ReadyforHillary.com website. McCaskill’s backing for Clinton is hardly a surprise but the timing may indicate a deliberate strategy on the part of the former first lady and secretary of state. The announcement may be the first of a series of high-profile endorsements that will occur at regular intervals over the course of the next year as Clinton seeks to do something that only incumbent presidents can generally aspire to: clear the field of all serious competition among Democrats.

Clinton’s not the only likely presidential contender making noises these days. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who shapes up as a first-tier candidate for the Republican nod, has been concentrating on his re-election race this year. But this morning on “Morning Joe” he showed he was thinking 2016 by taking a shot at President Obama for what seemed like the first time since Hurricane Sandy when he mocked his belated “charm offensive” with the GOP.

But both Clinton and Christie (whose late night TV appearances have kept him in the public eye even on days when he’s not making news), might want to pause and consider whether their high profile this early in the run-up to 2016 is entirely a good thing. Clinton’s favorability ratings have dropped drastically since leaving the State Department and returning, albeit sparingly, back into the political fray. Indeed, a recent Gallup poll may indicate that the best thing for a 2016 contender would be to keep their profile low at this incredibly early stage of the contest.

Gallup shows that of the most likely Republican candidates the one who has had the least publicity in the first half of 2013 is the one with the highest net favorability ratings. Surprisingly, after six months in which Christie and Senators Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have rarely been out of the limelight while the 2012 vice presidential candidate has been hard to find in either the headlines or the talk shows, Paul Ryan leads those other contenders by a large margin when it comes to favorability among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.

Ryan has a whopping 69 percent favorability rating and a net favorability (which deducts the unfavorable numbers from the total of those who like the person) of 57 percent. Rubio is second in both categories with a 57 percent favorability number and a net of 47 percent. Rand Paul was third with 56 percent and 43 percent.

But perhaps just as interesting are the numbers of the other two politicians rated in the poll.

Chris Christie’s favorability numbers are competitive with a 53 percent rating. But he has the highest unfavorable ratings of the quintet with 25 percent of those GOP sympathizers saying they don’t like him. That resulted in Christie having a very low 28 percent net favorability that placed him in dead last.

As for Ted Cruz, he may have become among the most well known figures in Washington during the freshman senator’s six months in office. But though his penchant for mussing up the hair of both Republicans and Democrats has made him the darling of the Tea Party set and the liberal media’s unofficial public enemy No. 1, he hasn’t yet penetrated the national consciousness as much as the other Republicans. Cruz has the lowest favorability number at 40 as well as having the lowest number of unfavorable answers at only eight percent. But that’s because a clear majority of Republicans—52 percent—have not yet formed an opinion of Cruz.

There is still a very long way to go until the first primary and caucus votes are cast at the start of 2016, and all these numbers will fluctuate until then. But it is a fact that the more Clinton is out in the open—something that the ongoing murmurings about Benghazi and the State Department scandals on her watch will make inevitable—the more her image will be tarnished.

That might not encourage any Democrat to try and derail her effort to become the first female major party presidential nominee. But the same factor will influence the lead-up to the GOP race.

I don’t doubt that by the time we get to 2015, when the presidential race will really take off, more Republicans will have made up their minds about Cruz. But while conservatives would be foolish to write off Christie’s chances, resistance to him on the right does complicate his path to the nomination. If Ryan does intend to run in 2016—something that is still very much in doubt in contrast to the near certainty about Rubio, Paul and Christie—his decision to lay low this year may prove to be very wise.

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Chris Christie: The Pop Culture Candidate?

The election of 2016 is still a long way off, but that hasn’t stopped pundits and prognosticators (like us) from endlessly debating who may be running in our next presidential election. While Democrats have few reasonable contenders outside of Hillary Clinton, Republicans have had the opposite problem–there’s at least a dozen possible names currently floating around. From congressmen like Paul Ryan to Senators like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul to popular governors like Scott Walker and Chris Christie, the Republican bench is deep and varied. A great deal of vitriol has been written about the latter recently by conservatives, highlighting just how far out of favor the once beloved New Jersey governor has fallen in the eyes of grassroots activists and journalists. That hasn’t caused Christie to shy away from the spotlight, and it may have even been his plan all along to end up in conservatives’ doghouse all along.

There’s a number of contenders vying for the hearts and minds of the conservative grassroots: Rand Paul, who became a darling after his filibuster; Scott Walker, who has publicly, and successfully, taken on public sector unions in his state; and the current darling, I would argue, Ted Cruz, whose “Cruz to Victory” fundraising campaign soared to the top of Twitter’s “trending topics” at the height of its popularity. It’s not easy to make a fundraiser a trending topic, but the enthusiasm of his supporters made the push seem more like a pep rally than a request for donations.

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The election of 2016 is still a long way off, but that hasn’t stopped pundits and prognosticators (like us) from endlessly debating who may be running in our next presidential election. While Democrats have few reasonable contenders outside of Hillary Clinton, Republicans have had the opposite problem–there’s at least a dozen possible names currently floating around. From congressmen like Paul Ryan to Senators like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul to popular governors like Scott Walker and Chris Christie, the Republican bench is deep and varied. A great deal of vitriol has been written about the latter recently by conservatives, highlighting just how far out of favor the once beloved New Jersey governor has fallen in the eyes of grassroots activists and journalists. That hasn’t caused Christie to shy away from the spotlight, and it may have even been his plan all along to end up in conservatives’ doghouse all along.

There’s a number of contenders vying for the hearts and minds of the conservative grassroots: Rand Paul, who became a darling after his filibuster; Scott Walker, who has publicly, and successfully, taken on public sector unions in his state; and the current darling, I would argue, Ted Cruz, whose “Cruz to Victory” fundraising campaign soared to the top of Twitter’s “trending topics” at the height of its popularity. It’s not easy to make a fundraiser a trending topic, but the enthusiasm of his supporters made the push seem more like a pep rally than a request for donations.

The love and attention of die-hard Tea Partiers is difficult to attain, and often turns from gold to water at any real or perceived misstep. The career trajectory of Mitt Romney is an example of this phenomenon: in the 2008 primaries against John McCain, Romney was cheered as the conservative alternative, garnering a surprisingly enthusiastic (at least in retrospect) reception at CPAC that year. Just four years later in 2012, Romney was viewed as the “establishment” candidate; when Paul Ryan came on board, many in the conservative grassroots found themselves eager to throw their support behind the ticket for the first time. Fast forward to today, Paul Ryan himself is the latest conservative to find himself in the grassroots’ doghouse, with Heritage Action, a leader in the conservative movement, taking aim at the congressman for his support of immigration reform. 

With these colleagues in mind, it seems as though Chris Christie has decided to take a markedly different road on his quest for the 2016 Republican nomination. If he can’t maintain the support and enthusiasm of conservatives (which it seems he’s totally given up on), Christie may have formulated a strategy to form moderate and low-information voters as his base. As a moderate Republican governing a state as deep blue as New Jersey, it’s an interesting path, and it is perhaps the only way to maintain both his seat as governor and his boost chances as a presidential contender.

Many of our readers are likely not avid consumers of popular culture; I admit my own pop culture knowledge and familiarity is lacking to say the least. I’ve observed an interesting phenomenon taking place over the last several months, since Christie shot to mainstream national fame with his response to Hurricane Sandy and his numerous photo-ops with President Obama at the time and since. Many friends and family who have no interest whatsoever in politics have sent me stories they come upon on Chris Christie they find in their daily Internet trawls, often humorous and always on sites I wouldn’t normally visit myself (TMZ, People magazine and other celebrity news homepages). Trying to forge a common ground, they often say “Hey, this is related to your job and kind of funny, this Christie guy is a piece of work!” Since the Hurricane Sandy photo-op I’ve heard much less about Christie from conservatives who once eagerly sent around his YouTube videos shouting down hecklers at town hall events, and I’ve been hearing quite a bit more about him from folks who were the sort that had to be reminded that November 6 was Election Day last year.

The Sandy move may have angered conservatives, but it seems to have cemented Christie in the minds of moderate, low-information voters as an affable and relatable guy who cares more about people and policy than politics. Christie has turned that opening into a chance to introduce himself to Americans as the mainstream Republican who isn’t quite as scary and conservative as some of the other guys who may be on the ballot. From sit down interviews with People magazine about romancing his wife to ones chronicling his struggle with weight loss, Christie and his staff seem to understand better than most Republicans how to speak to women voters, and where best to reach them.

Christie is also targeting young voters on topics and sites that interest them, like with his boardwalk confrontation with Snooki, a reality star, making the heavily trafficked celebrity gossip site TMZ. Not to leave out the mainstream male demographic, Christie appeared on the late-night show Jimmy Fallon this week, “slow-jamming” the news with the host. The “slow-jam” was at times funny, at times uncomfortable, and eminently viral (you can watch it here on the New York Post‘s website). Christie withstood a few jabs about his weight and basically made a press conference speech about why he chose to hold a special election for the Senate seat that the late Frank Lautenberg recently left open. It’s incredible just how far Fallon let Christie take his own self-promotion, and Fallon even serenaded the governor with the famous Jersey ballad “Born to Run,” referencing Fallon’s desire for Christie to make a go in 2016. The whole appearance, from start-to-finish, felt more like a campaign ad than a segment on late-night television. 

Chris Christie may be the first Republican who has manipulated the mainstream media as well as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama once did. The former pioneered the strategy, famously appearing on MTV and divulging his preference for briefs on a segment of Rock the Vote during his bid for reelection and playing the saxophone while he was still candidate Bill in 1992. Barack Obama has been a mainstay on late-night television during both campaigns and as president, not to mention in the pages of People magazine, often appearing there more frequently than individuals who have publicists that do nothing but work to get their images into those glossy pages.

As sad as it may be for the future of American political discourse, it seems that Christie’s attempts to ingrain himself in the pop culture world will likely get him farther than candidates who are planning on spending their energies in the next few years bolstering their records, lists of accomplishments and endorsements. If Rand Paul or Marco Rubio want to find themselves brainstorming their cabinet appointees in 2016, they should be spending more time romancing late-night hosts and a little less time filibustering and crafting legislation. Such a strategy may not make for an informed or enlightened electorate, but it seems to be the best way to find oneself in the West Wing.

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Booker Gets a Boost in Quest for Senate

Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker make light of their friendly competition for the media spotlight, but the rivalry was never too convincing because their interests have so often aligned. As rising stars in opposing parties forced to share the stage in New Jersey, they could be expected to clash often. But the two have found common ground on education, economic issues, and crime policy, and most importantly have an interest in avoiding having to run against each other.

And when Senator Frank Lautenberg passed away this week, opening up a seat Booker was planning to run for next year, their interests aligned once again. New Jersey election law seemed to allow for a special election to fill this seat either this year or next. Calling the election for 2014 would have allowed Christie to avoid running alongside another high-profile candidate during his reelection campaign and would give the Republican Party a head start at holding the seat next year. That would have been best for Booker as well, since he doesn’t have a statewide campaign apparatus in place and would like to have the extra year to raise money. It would also give him a foil in the Republican senator he’d be running against, which would likely be an easier target than Christie.

But as Jonathan alluded to yesterday, Democrats would have challenged postponing the election until 2014 and, given the liberal state courts, would almost certainly have won. That would have been a setback for Christie, so he announced he was scheduling the special election for this fall. He had the option of setting the election to coincide with his own or to take place earlier. Christie doesn’t want to run on the same day that Booker is on the ballot, and once again this was also preferable for Booker, who didn’t want to risk facing a candidate who could run on Christie’s coattails.

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Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker make light of their friendly competition for the media spotlight, but the rivalry was never too convincing because their interests have so often aligned. As rising stars in opposing parties forced to share the stage in New Jersey, they could be expected to clash often. But the two have found common ground on education, economic issues, and crime policy, and most importantly have an interest in avoiding having to run against each other.

And when Senator Frank Lautenberg passed away this week, opening up a seat Booker was planning to run for next year, their interests aligned once again. New Jersey election law seemed to allow for a special election to fill this seat either this year or next. Calling the election for 2014 would have allowed Christie to avoid running alongside another high-profile candidate during his reelection campaign and would give the Republican Party a head start at holding the seat next year. That would have been best for Booker as well, since he doesn’t have a statewide campaign apparatus in place and would like to have the extra year to raise money. It would also give him a foil in the Republican senator he’d be running against, which would likely be an easier target than Christie.

But as Jonathan alluded to yesterday, Democrats would have challenged postponing the election until 2014 and, given the liberal state courts, would almost certainly have won. That would have been a setback for Christie, so he announced he was scheduling the special election for this fall. He had the option of setting the election to coincide with his own or to take place earlier. Christie doesn’t want to run on the same day that Booker is on the ballot, and once again this was also preferable for Booker, who didn’t want to risk facing a candidate who could run on Christie’s coattails.

And Booker received some more good news: Democratic Representative Rush Holt will run for the seat in this summer’s primary. That helps Booker because the primary was set to pit Booker against Representative Frank Pallone, a central-Jersey congressman who was long considered the rightful successor to Lautenberg–plans that were upended when Booker decided he didn’t want to challenge Christie for governor and had to find another seat to run for in the meantime.

Although Booker would still have been considered the favorite against Pallone, the contest wasn’t too lopsided. Booker has higher name recognition, Pallone a war chest and active campaign infrastructure. Having the election next year would have given Booker the opportunity to match or even surpass Pallone’s fundraising, but it would also have given Pallone a year to build up his name recognition statewide. Pallone also might have started advertising earlier than Booker, and at least had the chance to set the tempo of the campaign.

But the rules of the special election don’t require House members to resign their seats to run, so Holt sees no risk in throwing his name in the hat. Democratic Congressman Rob Andrews was reportedly considering running as well, but Maggie Haberman reports that he is out. Pallone and Holt represent adjoining districts, which means they share representation of several New Jersey counties (and even one town, as of the last redistricting). It’s fair to say they will be competing for many of the same voters who would otherwise be part of their electoral base in a statewide election, and will have to spend more time and resources fighting for voters close to home, leaving fewer resources available to expand their campaign presence across the state.

As for Christie, he has not yet made any announcements about a possible interim senator, but the calculus hasn’t changed much from Monday. If not for his age (78), popular former governor Tom Kean Sr. would be an attractive pick but it’s unlikely he would want to run to keep the seat, leaving his son, Tom Kean Jr., a choice that would rankle few feathers and may give the GOP a fighting chance at keeping the seat (though it would be an uphill battle against Booker). The fact that the interim appointment would only be for a few months and would have to be defended right away will probably convince some other possible contenders (such as Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno) to take a pass on the seat.

All that means Booker will have less competition on the GOP side and more competition on the Democratic side, both of which should be expected to help his already favorable chances of succeeding Lautenberg.

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Christie’s Cynical if Deft Senate Play

As I wrote earlier today, people who thought the death of Senator Frank Lautenberg put New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in a tight spot underestimated the strength of his position and overestimated the trouble the opening up of the seat might cause him. The governor acted with characteristic decisiveness this afternoon by announcing that he was calling a special election for October to replace Lautenberg while not saying who would fill the seat during the next four months. This didn’t please national Republicans who would have liked Christie to make the appointment be one that lasts until November 2014, when the next federal election is held. And New Jersey Democrats are crying foul about the fact that this will mean the state’s voters will be asked to go to the polls twice within a month, first to just elect a senator who will be up for re-election in 13 months and then in November for the regularly scheduled vote for governor and the entire state legislature, costing the state tens of millions.

But no one should be under any illusions that these complaints will have the least impact on Christie’s chances of reelection or of getting the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Though the decision was delivered with an equally characteristic self-serving cynicism, Christie came out on top here, as he always seems to do, maximizing the personal benefits of the situation while diminishing his rivals.

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As I wrote earlier today, people who thought the death of Senator Frank Lautenberg put New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in a tight spot underestimated the strength of his position and overestimated the trouble the opening up of the seat might cause him. The governor acted with characteristic decisiveness this afternoon by announcing that he was calling a special election for October to replace Lautenberg while not saying who would fill the seat during the next four months. This didn’t please national Republicans who would have liked Christie to make the appointment be one that lasts until November 2014, when the next federal election is held. And New Jersey Democrats are crying foul about the fact that this will mean the state’s voters will be asked to go to the polls twice within a month, first to just elect a senator who will be up for re-election in 13 months and then in November for the regularly scheduled vote for governor and the entire state legislature, costing the state tens of millions.

But no one should be under any illusions that these complaints will have the least impact on Christie’s chances of reelection or of getting the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Though the decision was delivered with an equally characteristic self-serving cynicism, Christie came out on top here, as he always seems to do, maximizing the personal benefits of the situation while diminishing his rivals.

Let’s first dispense with the question of whether Christie should have made the appointment one that would last until the end of 2014. His failure to do so does hurt the Republicans in the Senate, as the odds are that, barring a miracle, the seat will revert to the Democrats after the October special election. But his stated reasons for that decision—the principles of democracy—are pure New Jersey baloney. The state law regarding such appointments is ambiguous enough to allow for a long appointment, but it would have been challenged in court by Democrats who are confident about the liberal judiciary there backing up their gambit. A 2013 Senate election allows Christie to avoid that mess as well as preventing voters in that blue state from associating him with a move that would strengthen a very conservative GOP caucus.

This will cause some hard feelings in Washington Republican circles, but most will understand that Christie’s first obligation is to get re-elected. Besides, if he does enter the 2016 race, there will be other reasons for the right to resist Christie. Doing anything to please people who will probably never support him in a presidential primary isn’t worth his time.

As for scheduling what seems to be an unnecessary special election, Christie has opened himself up to charges of doing exactly the thing that he complains about when other people are in power: wasting money. The notion that the extra month gained by an elected senator from the time of the governor’s appointment is worth the trouble is absurd, especially since the senator that wins in October will have to turn around and run the next year as well.

But the scheduling maximizes Christie’s chances of rolling up a big reelection win in November as well as the possibility that his appeal will help the state GOP take control of both houses of the New Jersey legislature. Had the special election been on the same day, a popular Democratic Senate candidate like Newark Mayor Corey Booker might have generated a big minority turnout that would have lowered Christie’s totals and helped his opposition in Trenton. But if those minorities turn out in October, the odds are, many, if not most will stay home in November allowing that Election Day to belong to Christie.

Those who claim this shows Christie is afraid of Booker are forgetting that it was the mayor who ducked the governor’s race this year specifically because he knows he couldn’t beat Christie. But separating the Senate race from the state elections maximizes Christie’s chances of making the kind of splash in a blue state that will enhance his presidential credentials. The special election also makes it harder on Booker because it allows incumbent Democratic members of Congress to try their chances against him without losing their seats.

The point here is that even though Christie’s public rationale for these decisions rings false, his ability to stick to his self-righteous story will allow him to ignore the criticisms. If all goes as planned, he will be reelected easily, be able to govern with a more pliable legislature and then be able to consider a presidential run with a landslide win to his credit. If some conservatives or Democrats think he doesn’t play fair or tell the truth about his motivations, they’re right. But this won’t cost him many votes.

For all of the brickbats his decision earns him, Christie remains in the catbird seat and anyone who thinks different doesn’t understand how he thinks or what he stands to gain this year.

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Christie in Trouble? He’s in the Catbird Seat

Conventional wisdom tells us that when we get lemons we should make lemonade, and that is exactly what the mainstream liberal media is doing today as they contemplate the loss of a Democratic seat in the Senate with the death of Frank Lautenberg. This gives New Jersey Governor Chris Christie the chance to do what every governor longs for: appoint a U.S. senator. Yet if you read the New York Times today, you’d think Christie was the real victim of this turn of events. The headline on the story: “Death of Senator Places Christie in Difficult Spot” captures the gist of the piece, the conceit of which is the premise that by being forced to name a Republican to sit in the Senate, the governor has been given a hopeless choice between lessening his chances for re-election this November or throwing away any hope of being the GOP presidential nominee in 2016. The Washington Post is a bit less dire when it describes his dilemma as a “tough choice.”

Yet while Christie does have a complex set of options before him, the idea that he is in any danger is absurd. Rather than being pushed into a corner, Christie is sitting pretty. There is little chance that any of the possible choices he has been given could possibly endanger his re-election. Nor is it likely that he will pick anyone that will so embitter national Republicans as to diminish his chances in 2016. What Christie does have is the chance to further enhance his power and influence, both locally and nationally. Far from hurting Christie, Lautenberg’s death 17 months before his seat would have been up for grabs in the midterm elections focuses the political world on the governor, and that is exactly what he likes.

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Conventional wisdom tells us that when we get lemons we should make lemonade, and that is exactly what the mainstream liberal media is doing today as they contemplate the loss of a Democratic seat in the Senate with the death of Frank Lautenberg. This gives New Jersey Governor Chris Christie the chance to do what every governor longs for: appoint a U.S. senator. Yet if you read the New York Times today, you’d think Christie was the real victim of this turn of events. The headline on the story: “Death of Senator Places Christie in Difficult Spot” captures the gist of the piece, the conceit of which is the premise that by being forced to name a Republican to sit in the Senate, the governor has been given a hopeless choice between lessening his chances for re-election this November or throwing away any hope of being the GOP presidential nominee in 2016. The Washington Post is a bit less dire when it describes his dilemma as a “tough choice.”

Yet while Christie does have a complex set of options before him, the idea that he is in any danger is absurd. Rather than being pushed into a corner, Christie is sitting pretty. There is little chance that any of the possible choices he has been given could possibly endanger his re-election. Nor is it likely that he will pick anyone that will so embitter national Republicans as to diminish his chances in 2016. What Christie does have is the chance to further enhance his power and influence, both locally and nationally. Far from hurting Christie, Lautenberg’s death 17 months before his seat would have been up for grabs in the midterm elections focuses the political world on the governor, and that is exactly what he likes.

It’s true that choosing a senator makes the person deciding the appointment one friend—the nominee—and a lot of enemies in all the people who aren’t picked. But the New Jersey Republican Party is not a team of equals. Christie’s popularity and power dwarfs that of everyone else. At this point he can pick anyone he wants and need fear no repercussions at home.

Nor is there much chance that national conservatives will hold it against him if he nominates a moderate Republican since there really aren’t very many conservatives of stature in the state to choose from. Indeed, as much as many conservatives around the nation resent Christie for his dalliances with President Obama and criticism of the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, the governor is, in fact, very much a conservative in the context of New Jersey politics. So long as Christie picks someone who will vote with the Senate GOP caucus for as long as they are in the seat, he won’t suffer for it.

The question of the timing of the special election to replace Lautenberg is tricky and could potentially create some problems for Christie, who is up for re-election this year. The Republicans would prefer to hold the election in 2014 and let Christie’s pick hold the seat for a year and a half, but Christie won’t do anything to cloud his image in this way. If the Senate vote is held this November, it raises the possibility that a groundswell for popular Newark Mayor Corey Booker—the likely Democratic nominee—could increase turnout and make it harder for Christie to win by a landslide or use his coattails to help the GOP make big gains in the New Jersey legislature. But if the two elections are held together it’s the Democrats who should worry. It’s been a few decades since a Republican won a Senate seat in New Jersey, but having a political dynamo like Christie with strong bipartisan support gives the GOP its best chance to win an upset. If Christie picks an attractive candidate to run with him, Democrats have to know they will be in for a much tougher fight than if the governor wasn’t on the ballot. If the election is held at another time, no one will blame Christie if the Democrats win in what is a very blue seat.

Far from hurting the governor, his choice gives him another opportunity to demonstrate his political mastery over his state. Whether his choice holds the seat or not, a good pick who is able to run a competitive campaign will only make Christie look good. Moreover, the process that will play out now will give the public another opportunity to see Christie at his best. Just as the chaotic manner with which former New York Governor David Patterson chose Kirsten Gillibrand to the Senate to replace Hillary Clinton in 2009 showed what a lousy executive he was, a sober and well-thought out selection process followed by a reasonable pick of a political ally will demonstrate Christie’s ability to lead.

Though liberals are claiming today that Lautenberg’s death creates a headache for Christie, that’s just spin. The potential gains for him far outweigh the possible losses. Barring his pick going completely off the rails in office, Christie’s choices are all good and the national focus on Trenton only enhances his national standing as one of his party’s leading figures. The odds are, he won’t hurt himself in any way and will help his party at home and in Washington.

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