[New Jersey Governor Chris] Christie is increasingly seen as the one candidate who might be able to bridge the divide between the establishment and the tea party that is in the process of ripping the party apart. In that way, Republicans are hoping that he can do for their side what Bill Clinton did in the early 1990s for a Democratic party that was similarly divided — heal what looks to be an un-healable wound through force of personality and a demonstrated record of success as a governor.
The Democratic Party in the 1990’s was not particularly rigid ideologically. They had controlled the House of Representatives since 1955, and for all but two Congresses since 1933. They had held the Senate for most of that time, too, and had controlled it since 1987. It’s true that the party had suffered three consecutive brutal presidential defeats and was casting around for a candidate or a strategy that could turn the tide, but they were used to running Capitol Hill and almost felt it was their birthright. As Steve M. points out, the major Democratic candidates were not cookie-cutters. Paul Tsongas was a deficit hawk, Jerry Brown was pushing a flat-tax, and Bill Clinton was talking about welfare reform. Not only were the candidates different from each other, but they were using major planks of the platform to annoy and separate themselves from the liberal base. But these heterodoxies didn’t so much indicate that there was some major split on the left as they showed the left’s willingness to be flexible in light of the drubbings they had taken in the preceding twelve years.
I’m sure that Bill Clinton’s unique political gifts helped paper over some divisions on the left, but it would be a major exaggeration to say that he healed a rift on the scale of what the Republican Party is facing today.
Gov. Christie might be able to do for the right what Clinton did for the left, but that’s a different argument. In 1992, it was common wisdom that only a southern Democrat stood a chance of winning the presidency. The gigantic losses of Minnesota’s Walter Mondale in 1984 and Massachusetts’ Michael Dukakis in 1988 had cemented that belief. In 1992, Bill Clinton won in Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia. It may be that the Republicans need a presidential candidate who can do something similar for them in the North, and Christie could fit that bill. But it’s hard to see how he can simultaneously appeal to Northerners and win the nomination of a southern party. I know Mitt Romney managed to pull it off the latter, but he did it at the expense of the former. In any case, Christie would be a good candidate for the Republican Party, but I don’t see him healing any divisions.