Chris Christie and the future of the Republican party

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.


  1. ph041985 says

    Living in Philadelphia, I’ve observed Christie’s policies well enough to have an idea of the type of politician he is: He’s a very good politician, and just as good an actual leader.

    A lot of people who are criticizing Christie for his praise of the President forget that last year, during Hurricane Irene, the rapport between Christie and Obama was very nearly the same. But I guess since it wasn’t during an election year it didn’t matter as much. And how do these people reconcile the fact that Christie still blasted Obama as an ineffectual leader during his convention speech.

    I personally don’t like Christie’s positions, obviously they are too Republican for me, but I see him for what he is. I’d rather have him on my side than against it, politically.

    At the same time, I’ve been offended at how the right have basically thrown him under the bus for doing what he was supposed to do: his job as governor. Knowing that there were people’s lives on the line, to have his party ask him to sacrifice his constituents’ priorities for the priorities of his party, I think he got it exactly right.

  2. TGAP Dad says

    Make it an all-Jersey race: Christie vs. Booker!

    My guess is that Christie would have to tack too far right during the primaries, because of the concentration of southern states, to secure the nomination, and then try the general election Etch-a-Sketch maneuver. That didn’t work so well this time around for Romney. OTOH, he might just decide to do his pandering via dog whistle, making it easier to walk it back during the general.

  3. Jared A says

    Like the previous commenter, I have had some experience with chris christie locally, since I lived in NJ for the last 5 years before moving this summer. Christie is governor of a blue state, and this means he knows how to get left-leaning people to vote for him. You can expect that if he is to run for president that he will be playing that strength. Of course, you could say the same thing about Romney (gov. of mass.), so one would have to explain what went wrong there. Perhaps he hopes for a different R. Party than we have now?

    There’s no doubt the guy is a politician. He brands himself as a straight-shooter and someone who is practical before political — a good strategy in NJ — but this is somewhat less factual than it is just political showmanship. For example, last spring my wife went to a local event where christie was supposed to be talking about some local policy implementation from the 2011 election and instead he spent the whole time railing against unions which had 0% overlap with the actual event. There was no need for this, it was just 2nd nature for your typical politician campaigner and soundbite manufacturer.

    Sandy was a horrible thing, but for christie it had a silver lining: doing the right thing as governor was the same as doing the right thing Politically. In 4 years if Christie wants to run for president (I think he does) this will be a huge boon in the general election. The voters he needs to win will actually care about something like bipartisan cooperation in the face of disaster. Obviously the strategic advantages of having dem. leaving the WH in 2016 are major bonuses, but the man doesn’t need to be cynical about it, because there was no way to change it. It was clear that Romney was losing long before the storm, and there was little Christie could do to sway it either way. It doesn’t matter how cynical he is internally, the fact is he had the political latitude to speak his mind–that he didn’t give a shit what helped Romney. It makes an excellent soundbite, and once the cannibalization of Romney is complete it won’t be a liability with the establishment anymore.

    Finally, working well with the guy who will be president for 4 more years is a very good way to get things done in your home state. There were no downsides for Christie to act the way he did, even from a non-cynical standpoint, so I am surprised anyone would expect anything else.

    The only thing I am not sure about is the primaries. Christie has the same bullying personality as Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney that authoritarian types seem to respond very well to. In terms of policy, I think that really the most important thing to look for is how the Republican Party has changed by the 2014 election.

  4. Alverant says

    No, when you’re a GOP governor your job is to support the party first, your state a distant second. You’re supposed to let your state suffer if you can blame liberals for it.

  5. Trebuchet says

    The Republicans’ ability to nominate an electable candidate in ’16 depends, I think, in large part upon their ability to discourage far-right candidates from running. Romney had to at least pay lip service to social issues he really doesn’t care about in order to beat Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Santorum, et al in the primaries. That hurt him in the general.

    Whether the far right retains its current control of the grass roots may depend on the congressional elections in ’14. The Republicans have another great opportunity to take the Senate, with something like twice as many Democratic incumbents up for re-election as Republicans. If the once again blow that opportunity by nominating the likes of Akin and Mourdock, the wingnut wing of the party may finally be discredited.

  6. rgmani says

    Add me to the list of people who just does not get why Christie did what he did – and I’m an Obama voter. Not because he said nice things about the President or because he visited the affected areas with him. All of that is fine.

    What puzzles me is why he did not invite Romney to tour the affected areas too and why he did not appear at any Romney rally after that. Romney held one in Pennsylvania just across the border from New Jersey – it wouldn’t have taken more than an hour of Christie’s time to put in a brief appearance.

    By completely giving Romney the cold shoulder, he basically killed his chances of ever becoming the Republican nominee for President. I doubt if a couple of token gestures of support for Romney would have hurt his chances of re-election in New Jersey but his complete lack of support for Romney have made most Republicans in the country consider him a traitor.

    Not that any of this matters to me. Unless the Republican party divorces itself from the crazies, I’ll probably remain a Democratic voter in 2016 as well.

    – RM

  7. Jeff Johnson says

    What if Obama appoints Christie, who was a US attorney before his election, as the replacement for Eric Holder at Attorney General? Christie showed admirable fair mindedness when defending a Muslim appointee to the New Jersey court. I may disagree with Christie on education or budgetary policies, but I suspect his civil rights and law enforcement ideas may be in sync with Obama. Perhaps he is to the right on abortion or gay marriage, but I don’t think he is an extreme ideologue on these.

    I may not agree with Christie on his budgeting priorities or his attitudes toward teachers, but I think the man means what he says, says what he means, and doesn’t tolerate bullshit. For this I respect him, and I doubt he would ever want to try to pull off the Romney Gumby act. As Christie would probably say, anyone who thinks he could pander like Romney did just doesn’t know him very well. Christie represents, I think, where the Republican Party needs to go ideologically if they want to recover from the hole they have allowed religious and southern traditionalists to dig them into. Whether the RNC will be ready for Christie in 2016, or will reject him as a RINO, remains to be seen. But what seems clear is that the GOP will have to adjust to Christie, he won’t adjust to the base like the shape-shifting Romney did. I think the RINO concept is a symptom of why the GOP has lost the popular vote in 5 of the last 6 Presidential elections. Independents who might vote Republican can agree with those the base calls RINOs.

  8. Jared A says

    I don’t htink it is as easy as it might seem to just “make an appearance”. Meeting with Romney to have some sort of thing like you are suggesting might take only an hour of Christie’s time (I think it will probably take several times that), but it will take many times that in terms of staff-time to coordinate it all. Probably his staff were already spread thinly and had much more urgent constraints on their time.

    So maybe it really wouldn’t have hurt his chances of being reelected governor, but it would have hurt people.

  9. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    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.

    I think Nixon’s thinking may have been rather simpler than that!

  10. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    Another possibility is that Christie doesn’t change but that the Republican party does

    A third is that Christie will switch parties if it becomes clear he won’t win the republican nomination.

  11. frank says

    I like it: a pragmatic Republican who bucks his party against a pragmatic Democrat who bucks his party. Christie should have an easier time playing the right wing of his party than Romney–he’s a much more natural politician.

    But Christie has a problem. He’s overweight. I hate to bring it up, as his physical appearance should (and would) not have any effect on his ability to govern. But it might have an effect on his ability to win. FDR famously hid his disability, and JFK hid his addictions. Mr Christie cannot hide his weight in the television era. It’s a shame, but Marco Rubio beats Mr Christie in the handsome contest, and is more likely to be nominated.

  12. Corvus illustris says

    “A third is that Christie will switch parties if it becomes clear he won’t win the republican nomination.”

    On what basis can you possibly entertain this fantasy? Christie functions well with the NJ Democrats in the legislature because of the uniformly high level of corruption in NJ politics (I lived in NJ for the last 30 years of the 20th c. and know whereof I speak). He could only do such a thing if he intended to run for President, and he’d be sent to the back of a long line of Dems-since-birth with the same ambition. The 2012 RNC speech would be seen nonstop on TV. After he got done with all that, consider the unions.

    My crystal ball may be cloudy, but I think the same goes for the notion @6 above: Christie as a replacement for Holder at AG. Aside from the bluest of canine Dems in the Senate choking on confirming that, taking the position would wipe out Christie’s biggest asset: conspicuous current Red governor of a Blue state.

  13. Bhavik says

    It confuses me why republican candidates court the crazy vote. Is that demographic really gonna vote democrat? Why not turn it into a real race and actually be moderate? Or is it more important to be different than reasonable?

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