In the wake of the Republican defeat, the inevitable finger pointing has begun on the losing side to see who can be blamed and, even more importantly, to avoid blame.
One person frequently being targeted for revenge is New Jersey governor Chris Christie. His thanks to president Obama for the federal government’s support in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy were seen as far more effusive than necessary. People also point to his self-aggrandizing speech at the Republican convention, where he mentioned Mitt Romney late and just a few times, as another sign of his own ambition and indicative of a deliberate attempt to sabotage Romney’s chances for this election so that he could run in 2016
That sounds cynical. After all, Christie was one of the first major politicians to endorse Romney in the crowded Republican primaries. Was that also part of a devious plan on his part? I have no idea what Christie is thinking but it is true that political infighting can be far more brutal than those of us on the outside imagine. Loyalty to party and standard bearer and even friends will often be discarded if it conflicts with personal ambition.
The calculations are often cold. For example, if you are in the opposition party in an election in which the incumbent president is also running, and if you have ambitions of being president yourself, then it is better for your party’s current nominee to lose and the president to be re-elected. Why? Because if the incumbent wins, then you can hope to be the nominee in four years time when there is voter fatigue with the incumbent party after eight years in office, and the winds of change will be at your back. Whereas if your own party’s nominee wins, then that person will run for re-election and you will have to wait for eight years to get your chance, and then the winds of change will be blowing against you.
Hunter S. Thompson’s wildly entertaining book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail about the 1972 presidential campaign describes how ambitious Democratic party leaders like Edmund Muskie and Hubert Humphrey undercut George McGovern’s candidacy partly because of this reason and partly because they wanted revenge on him for beating them in the primaries with better organization, when they felt they deserved to be the nominees by virtue of being the party’s senior figures. Incumbent president Richard Nixon in turn knew that his highly abrasive vice-president Spiro Agnew would help in getting ambitious Democrats to covertly support his own re-election, because they would realize that it would be easier to run and win against an Agnew candidacy in 1976. As we know, McGovern experienced a severe drubbing. Undoubtedly this was due to a multiplicity of reasons but this backstabbing was a not insignificant factor in derailing his campaign right from the start.
In 2016, vice-president Joe Biden will be 74 years old and thus may not run which means the Democratic candidate will not have the benefits of incumbency. If Biden does run, he will likely face a tough primary challenge from ambitious younger people. All this makes for good Republican prospects in 2016.
Kevin Drum says that the Republican party is unlikely to select Christie as their nominee in 2016 for the following four reasons: (a) he’s vaguely pro-choice; (b) he thinks climate change is real; (c) he favors gun control; and (d) he has refused so far to pander to anti-Muslim bigotry. Drum thinks that all these things would make him anathema to the party’s crazy base.
I am surprised that Drum believes this. If the Romney candidacy proves anything, it is that Republican voters will overlook almost anything in a candidate’s past if he is willing to say what they want to hear now on hot-button social issues. Romney shamelessly switched positions all over the place, sometimes twice in the same day, and it did not prevent him from becoming the nominee and even being embraced by all those hardline Republicans including evangelical Christians. Christie could remake himself just like Romney did by disavowing all his past positions.
The only question is whether Christie is (a) cynical enough to make the switch, (b) has the time to do so, and (c) the performance skills to do it convincingly enough. Since I do not know him personally, I don’t know if (a) holds but politicians in general are quite cynical so one should allow for it. The time factor is more problematic. In Romney’s case, it is clear that he was planning to run for president for a very long time, even before he was governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2006, and thus could carefully plan his transition on the GRAGGS issues (guns, races, abortion, god, gays, and sex) from the more liberal ones he had to hold in order to be elected governor of Massachusetts. Christie has only a couple of years to carry out the makeover before the primaries begin for the 2016 campaign. As for his performance skills in convincing people that he had truly changed, that is tough to judge. In Romney’s case, it seemed clear that he had no real core beliefs other than his Mormon religion, and so people of all stripes were able to believe that he would do what they wanted him to do, which helped him in a curious way. It is not clear that the blunt-talking Christie could do that.
Another possibility is that Christie doesn’t change but that the Republican party does and moves in his direction, realizing that the extreme positions it took in this election is no way to win in the future and that they need a candidate who will stand up to the Tea Party, the virulent anti-taxers, and the extreme social conservatives in their ranks if they hope to overcome the demographic disadvantage caused by the fact that their old, white, male base is declining. That is likely to happen in the long run but in the wake of the (for them) unexpected defeat of Romney, I expect in the short term to see an angry backlash in which they pin the blame on Romney not being ‘pure’ enough and demanding that the party’s next candidate be even more rigidly doctrinaire. That is usually what happens within a party in the wake of a surprising loss. It takes repeated defeats for the message to sink in that the party needs to change.
The next year will reveal the shape of the future as the dust storm currently swirling around the Republican party slowly settles.