Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Why Do Conservatives Love Chris Christie?

Everyone can recognize Chris Christie’s substantial gifts as a politician. But they don’t explain why he continues to be an object of conservative political fantasy. Consider how Jennifer Rubin, the Washington Post’s conservative blogger, describes the reception Christie got from the Republican conservatives who attended his speech yesterday at the Reagan Library (my emphasis):
“The action at the Reagan Library Tuesday night was in the question-and-answer period. A woman in the balcony made a heartfelt plea to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to run for president. The audience stood in unified applause. Christie joked that only a megalomaniac would say it was a burden to be asked to run for leader of the free world. And then he said that, while he has heard such pleas, the reason to run ‘has to reside inside’” He added, ‘I take it in. I’m listening to every word of it and I feel it’” In other words, he’s thinking about it.

“It was an emotional moment unlike any other we’ve seen since the 2012 primary season began. Here was a microcosm of the party in the Reagan library imploring the newest GOP rock star to run. They meant it. They were virtually pleading.”
We normally think of Republican activists as being a pretty doctrinaire bunch. Christie's speech was entitled:  "Real American Exceptionalism."  Read the text yourself and try to put its content together with how it’s apparently being received in conservative circles.  Consider this passage in particular (my emphasis):
"The image of the United States around the world is not what it was, it is not what it can be and it is not what it needs to be. This country pays a price whenever our economy fails to deliver rising living standards to our citizens–which is exactly what has been the case for years now.   We pay a price when our political system cannot come together and agree on the difficult but necessary steps to rein in entitlement spending or reform our tax system.   We pay a price when special interests win out over the collective national interest. We are seeing just this in the partisan divide that has so far made it impossible to reduce our staggering deficits and to create an environment in which there is more job creation than job destruction.

"This is where the contrast between what has happened in New Jersey and what is happening in Washington, DC is the most clear.  In New Jersey over the last 20 months, you have actually seen divided government that is working. . . .  Here is what we did. We identified the problems. We proposed specific means to fix them. We educated the public on the dire consequences of inaction. And we compromised, on a bi-partisan basis, to get results. We took action.

"How so you ask? Leadership and compromise."
It’s not every day, I submit, that you hear a Republican politician warming hardened conservative hearts by turning American exceptionalism into an argument for pragmatic compromise with blue-state Democrats. Rick Perry would shoot his toes off with a colt revolver before he’d say anything like that and Mitt Romney would have an attack ad out in hours if Perry ever did. Yet hearing Christie say such things apparently makes a lot of staunch conservatives go weak in the knee.

I’ve always figured that, if Christie were to seek the Republican presidential nomination, he’d be to the 2012 election cycle what Rudy Giuliani was to the cycle in 2008. Giuliani’s exemplary leadership after 9/11, his having presided over the economic and civic revitalization of New York City in the 1990s and his gifts as a communicator make him a terrific political asset for the national Republican Party, especially when it’s trying to secure votes outside the south in presidential elections. That’s why he gets a prominent speaking role at every Republican National Convention. But that doesn’t mean that the Republican activists who love his speeches ever wanted him to be the Republican presidential nominee. Judging from their primary votes, if Giuliani hadn’t readily offered himself for the job in 2008, conservative Republicans wouldn’t have been lining up to urge him to throw his hat in the ring.

As far as I can see, Christie brings substantially the same assets and liabilities to the Republican table as Giuliani did.  Yet a lot of Republican activists suddenly won’t take Christie’s no about a president candidacy for an answer. The standard explanation goes something like this: lots of conservative Republicans are turning their lonely eyes to Christie because they’re dissatisfied with the current front-runners. Although they admire Romney’s record of executive competence, straight-laced ideologues doubt the authenticity of his conservatism. And although they admire Perry’s propensity to wear his conservative instincts on his sleeve, a lot of Republican activists fear that he’s too dim to go toe-to-toe with Obama on the campaign trail.

I can understand why conservative Republicans would have those doubts about Romney’s doctrinal rectitude and Perry’s electability. But why would they make allegedly doctrinaire conservatives long for someone like Christie, a guy who can’t be bothered even pretending to doctrinaire conservatism and regards ideological rigidity of any kind as a failure of leadership? Either there's a lot less to the draft-Christie movement than people like Rubin think, or Republican activists aren't nearly as doctrinaire as they're cracked up to be.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great analysis of the dis-connect between prevailing conservative shibboleths and the thrust of Christie's "New American Exceptionalism" (to give him a slogan if he needs one).

There is almost always a time in the primary season, and it happens in both parties, where the elite opinion shapers seize on the conclusion that none of the candidates will do.

Somehow the pundits circle around a savior alternative. If wise, this person demurs -- Cuomo in '88. Fred Thompson got cast in this role in '08, and made the mistake of not realizing it is just a phase in the campaign season narrative.

The anxiety the GOP folks are experiencing is this: Romney did well in the debates, and especially on a key for repugs: Presidentialness. However, Romney is a Mormon. Huge swaths of Christian evangelicals, fundamentalists, and literalists share an abiding conviction: The Book of Mormon is a fraud, the entire sect is NOT Christian, and the whole project is a certain and objective heresy.

These folks ended up biting the bullet in '08 on a man they assumed was an adulterer and almost surely a non-believer [McCain], rather than rally to a man they understood (and still understand) as accepting an objective heresy.

The anxiety is about knowing they can rope these voters in eventually, but not yet being sure how Romney will be able to manage it. >>Ben Currie