Commentary Magazine


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.

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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