False Analogy Alert: No, Every Bad Candidate Isn’t McCain ’08

I said at Lunch Buffet I might return to this if the political news remained slow. And since I haven’t figured out anything distinctive to say about today’s Big Story, the deal the New York Times and Fox News cut for access to source material from a conservative author about to release a book alleging corruption at the Clinton Foundation (you can read Martin Longman’s take on the Times‘ participation here), I shall return to Eliana Johnson’s scenario for a New Hampshire-based Chris Christie comeback.

I’m interested in this not so much out of any particular hostility to Christie or his candidacy, but because the McCain campaign of 2008 inevitably represented a wellspring of False Analogy claims. Why? Well, McCain’s campaign that year was left for dead not long before the voting began; he was low on money and disorganized. But thanks to the wonder working power of the flinty, independent New Hampshire voter, McCain got a second wind, and went on to win the nomination against all odds. So, too, goes the planted axiom, might other candidates left for dead. Like, say, Chris Christie:

Whether the governor has a political future at all may now rest on his performances here in New Hampshire. He hosted a town hall in Londonderry on Wednesday, toured the Made in New Hampshire Expo with Manchester mayor Ted Gastas, and delivered remarks at the First in the Nation Summit in Nashua. According to a senior aide, Christie will unveil a series of policy proposals by the end of June on entitlement reform, national security, energy, and tax and economic policy.

That’s an almost certain prelude to a presidential bid, and the project began at St. Anselm’s College in Manchester on Tuesday, when Christie outlined an ambitious plan for tackling entitlements that covers everything from Social Security to Medicaid to disability. These proposals will give Christie a chance to return to his political roots: that is, to tangle with voters about his controversial proposals and go to the mat defending them. After defeating New Jersey governor Jon Corzine in 2009, Christie rose to political stardom by duking it out with his constituents over proposed reforms to teacher tenure and doing some teaching of his own about how to have a respectful conversation.

Well, if Christie wants to “duke it out” with potential constituents, he’s sure picked a good topic. Trouble is, unlike his attacks on teachers unions in New Jersey, which were wildly popular from the get-go with conservatives and appealed to some swing voters, his entitlement reform rap is unpopular with everybody, especially the old folks who are disproportionately represented among GOP primary voters in NH and everywhere else.

Where’s the analogy with McCain, who in 2008 had just concluded a long, slow spiral of a pivot back to the conventional conservative positions he’d held back in the 1980s and 1990s? And where’s Christie supposed to get his personal connection with Granite Staters–you know, the one McCain was able to rely on thanks to his 2000 primary win there? And what’s the aspect of Christie’s biography that makes him to some extent bullet-proof in electoral contests, equivalent to McCain’s POW heroism?

The more you look at it, there’s really not much that merits comparison between McCain ’08 and Christie ’16, in New Hampshire in particular, other than the fact that they both entered the cycle sinking in the polls. But hell, if the keys to the kingdom in New Hampshire are simply low numbers and the willingness to say controversial things, why not Bobby Jindal or Donald Trump as the beneficiaries of a big New Hampshire wave?

At the risk of beating a really dead horse, I’d add that McCain had a few things going for him in 2008 that either might not happen in 2016 or might benefit someone other than Chris Christie. By the time voters started voting the early frontrunner, Rudy Giuliani, was already losing steam fast. Mitt Romney was thrown off track in Iowa by Mike Huckabee, who did not himself have any traction in (or money to spend for) New Hampshire. After New Hampshire McCain was able to thread the needle and achieve plurality wins in South Carolina and Florida over a weakened Romney and a last-gasp Huckabee campaign (itself bumped out of a SC win by a last-gasp Fred Thompson campaign), and then roll on to victory. And again, this was a guy who remained relatively popular the whole way. It takes some real magical thinking to envision Chris Christie in that role–and probably anybody else.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.