Monday, December 02, 2013

Will Christie be the GOP Populist Answer to Clinton?

[one can’t] say Christie is the man for the job, at least not yet. His problem is that—so far—he looks to be a divisive figure within his own party. Many conservatives are suspicious of him. Whether their reasons are legitimate or not is beside the point. One of the (many) causes of Cuccinelli’s failure in Virginia was that his own coalition was divided between the “grassroots” (who loved him) and the “establishment” (who did not). This sort of division, if taken into 2016, will prove crippling. Alienate the grassroots, and watch the base stay home. Alienate the establishment, and watch the big-money donors withdraw. The party must find a candidate who not only is immune to Clintonism, but also does not exacerbate existing divisions within the GOP coalition. All hands will have to be on deck in 2016.

--Jay Cost, Weekly Standard

Hillary Clinton pal Terry McAuliffe’s victory over Republican Ken Cuccinelli in Virgina seemed, we wrote, the lead story of last month’s off-year election. Right behind, though, came Chris Christie’s 20%-plus re-election victory as New Jersey governor, winning with 60% a state where previously, no Republican had gained over 50% of the statewide vote since 1988, and where just 39% of voters have a favorable impression of the GOP.

Before Christie can begin prying moderate votes away from Hillary, however, he must first win the Republican nomination--not an easy task, as Jay Cost suggests (above). One who thinks Cristie can win is former governor Christine Todd Whitman (R-NJ), who predicted Christie’s early Garden State experience running against Republican candidates to his right will help him nationally in 2016. Whitman opined:
I’m sure he’ll be attacked by the mindless ones that would rather go down in defeat with an ideologically pure candidate than win an election. I think we’re getting to the point where Republicans are finally saying we want to win.
Maybe so. It’s over two years until the GOP primaries begin. Way-too-early national polls have Christie leading a potential pack of 2016 GOP candidates, CNN giving him 24% and a 9% lead over runner-up Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) farther back at 10%.

“RealClearPolitics” reporter Scott Conroy, looking at a ridiculously early poll of 390 Iowa GOP caucus goers, suggests how Christie could actually win Iowa’s socially conservative GOP caucuses, then by storming to victory in more friendly New Hampshire a week later, quickly wrap up the nomination. Conroy’s poll shows Christie first at 17%, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) second at 16%, with other conservatives trailing. Such projections parallel how Mitt Romney virtually tied for first in the 2012 Iowa Republican caucuses. Romney with 25% of the vote grabbed just enough of smaller groups of “somewhat conservative” and “moderate” caucus goers, leaving other candidates to split the dominant conservative cohort.

Conroy thinks Christie will, as Romney did, downplay Iowa until the last minute as protection against a possible embarrassing defeat there. There’s another reason to follow Romney’s playbook: pushing hard early in Iowa could encourage conservatives to rally around a single conservative choice to block any Christie “1-2, Iowa-New Hampshire” victory strategy.  

New York Times’ columnist Ross Douthat supports moving Republicans away from social conservatism, and instead making a populist reach for working class voters motivated by economic distress. Discussing Cuccinelli’s failed Virginia gubernatorial campaign, Douthat thought the GOP candidate was too wrapped up in social issues to embody populism effectively, but said Cuccinelli had made a “game attempt” to channel it. Douthat added
you can’t ignore [populsim’s] potential downside for Republican fundraising, or the hard reality that the party’s donor class has the ability to kill a candidate they don’t link in a general election as thoroughly as the party’s populist wing can kill a candidate in a primary. Which is why, for a conservative populism to really work, it needs to have a clear appeal to the political center that the party’s current populist standard-bearers haven’t managed (yet!) to quite formulate. You need a lot of non-Republicans, as voters and small donors alike, to make up for the reality on display in Virginia [with Cuccinell’s defeat] — which is that if G.O.P. donors don’t get the party they want, some of them will find a perfectly comfortable home as Clinton-McAuliffe Democrats instead.
Douthat may believe Christie could bring populism and money together, judging from another column he wrote after November’s off-year elections, one titled “Dear Governor Christie.” In it, Douthat warns Christie
you [can’t] just run on your own awesomeness without specifying where you would take the country if you won. That act wears thin in a long campaign, and it’s likely to wear especially thin in a party that needs a new agenda as badly as Republicans do today. . . you’ll need substance as well as regular-guy style: a tax plan that doesn’t play just as a giveaway to the 1%, a health care plan that isn’t just a defense of the pre-Obamacare status quo, an approach to spending that targets corporate welfare as well as food stamps.
There it is, Douthat’s pitch for Christie to carry the populism flag.

Douthat concedes that while critics--and that would include those who have Christie’s ear--underestimate libertarian populism in two ways, they get some of a third point right:
1. [critics] miss the potential breadth of the libertarian populist idea, which many of them are assessing purely through the lens of economic policy even though it has obvious implications for social issues and foreign policy [pro gay marriage, marijuana, criminal justice reform, isolationism abroad]
2. many economic issues and policy controversies potentially map onto the libertarian populist “insider vs. outsider” framework[, given that “insiders” also include] well-salaried bureaucrats, even-better-salaried contractors, employers who want low wages and energy companies with the right lobbyists
3. critics [get that t]here really is a big fiscal-policy hole in libertarian populism. . . ideas like the flat tax. [Candidates should] focus. . . on payroll taxes instead, which would be a solid step toward a more plausible right-of-center domestic policy.
Douthat may gravitate toward Christie as a fellow Northeastener, but Douthat’s libertarian populist philosophy better fits Ted Cruz, the potential candidate nipping Christie’s heels in the Iowa poll mentioned above. Cruz is close to Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), the man who best embodies Douthat’s libertarian populism, right down to the idea of a payroll tax reduction.

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