In TAP today, Jonathan Bernstein pens a strong response to glib identifications of Chris Christie’s 2016 presidential prospects with those of Rudy Giuliani’s in 2008. Since I did a recent post referring to Christie (tentatively) as “the Round Mound of Rebound for the Guiliani strain of northeastern Republicanism,” perhaps I should explain why I think Jonathan makes some good points.
Jonathan has a “viability test” for candidates which Rudy flunked but Christie passes:
It’s no exact science, but viable candidates must have conventional qualifications and fall within the mainstream of their party on most issues of public policy. Fail one or the other, and as candidates from Michele Bachmann (Member of the House) to Gary Johnson (out of the mainstream) to Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich (both!) have discovered, you’ll get nowhere near the Oval Office.
Christie, assuming he is re-elected as governor of New Jersey, easily meets the first test, and he almost certainly meets the second one. After all, candidates don’t have to have a perfect record of supporting every party position from birth; they only need to be close enough to the broad mainstream that when there are differences, they can find ways to have convincing conversions (as candidates from George H.W. Bush to Al Gore to Mitt Romney have had on abortion) or to at least fudge the issue (as Romney did on guns and LGBT issues).
So Christie is no Giuliani. Rudy may have been something of a conservative poster boy for the September 11 attacks (and, no, I don’t really understand that either), but he also failed both viability tests. Mayor of New York City isn’t a conventional qualification for the presidency; indeed, no mayor or former mayor (without other added experience) has come anywhere close to winning a nomination since reforms changed the process after 1968. Mayor of New York, anyway, is a famously dead-end job; it’s an Iron Law of Politics that no New York mayor moves up to statewide office, let alone national office.
Moreover, Giuliani had a wide array of issues—most notably abortion, but also guns and gays—where he was totally out of the Republican mainstream. All of it meant that while lots of Republicans could get themselves excited about the idea of Rudy Giuliani, there was no way he was going to come anywhere close to a nomination.
Fair enough; in my own post comparing the two men I underlined Christie’s orthodox position on abortion as a big deal, and also noted Christie does not have Rudy’s controversial marital history. But having distinguished the two, Jonathan goes on to say that Christie’s superior acceptability to the GOP is a relative thing–he’s not the kind of guy who’s going to vanish without a trace the minute Republicans started voting, the way Rudy did, but he’s got some problems that other potential candidates just don’t have, beginning with his history on gun policy and his basic positioning as an “Acela corridor governor” who takes it for granted you can’t hate government or even Barack Obama 24-7. So he’s viable, but by no means a real front-runner, even if he enjoys a plurality lead in early polls (at least since Marco Rubio’s big drop in support occurred).
I’d go further and suggest that in many ways Christie’s in a position similar to Mitt Romney’s going into the 2012 cycle. He’s acceptable to most Republicans, but with serious misgivings. Polls show him doing better than anyone else in a general election. The conservative activists who exert so much influence in early states don’t really trust him. I doubt Christie’s love-in with Obama last year quite ranks up there with RomneyCare as a handicap, but on the other hand, Christie did not run as the “true conservative” presidential candidate in the previous cycle, which gave Romney some crucial street cred.
You may recall that Romney kept finding himself at one point or another in the 2012 cycle trailing just about every rival in polls of Republicans–Bachmann, Cain, Perry, Gingrich, Santorum, and even Donald Trump. As each rival failed to erase the clown makeup, Mitt remained standing and eventually prevailed. I think we can expect the same dynamics with a Christie campaign: his chances for winning the nomination of a party that will only pick him if it is forced to may depend more on the ability of conservative rivals to pass the electability test than on anything the New Jersey governor himself says or does.
Now there’s enough time between now and the first real presidential campaigning at the beginning of 2015 for something really unexpected to happen: Christie could catch fire via identification with some conservative cause that’s not evident today, or could be the only viable general election candidate against HRC. By the same token, a rival could catch fire, too, or someone not deemed that formidable right now, like Scott Walker, could nail down crucial support in both ideological and “pragmatist” camps. But more than likely, Chris Christie would enter a presidential campaign looking better than Rudy going into ’08 but perhaps not much better than Romney going into ’12. As the rightward trajectory of the GOP continues with no real end in sight, I don’t think that’s a real comfortable place to be.