A New Republican Illusion

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, October 4, 2011

 

The growing speculation about New Jersey governor Chris Christie entering the Republican primaries highlights the main problem of the opposition party, the absence of an attractive candidate. Because Christie is not the first hopeful with sufficient credentials that enters the race in recent months—and will likely go down the same drain as others who entered before—it is time to consider whether the Republican problem lies in the profound divisions within the party. Those candidates that are most attractive to rightwing Republicans are simply not electable, while those electable moderates become immediate “no-goes” in a party captured by rightwing extremists.

 

Chris Christie is bulky 59 year old lawyer who became Governor of New Jersey in 2008. He was the first Republican to win a state-wide office in that overwhelmingly Democratic state. Of Italian (mother) and Irish (father) descent, Christie grew up in New Jersey and attended the University of Delaware and obtained a law degree from Seton Hall, a catholic university in Newark. Married to Mary Pat Foster, who has a career in investment banking, Christie is the father of 4 children. After a short, and somewhat controversial, career as a county legislator, Christie became a registered lobbyist. His clients’ issues included the deregulation of gas and electricity in New Jersey and the granting of an educational license to the University of Phoenix, a private for-profit educational institution in New Jersey. In late 2001, under the George W. Bush administration, Christie was appointed U.S. Attorney for the district of New Jersey.

 

In 2009, Christie won the Republican primaries for the gubernatorial race. During the campaign, the New York Times published a story on his distant family relationship with Tino Fiumara, the leader of a Genovese crime family. Christie went on to defeat incumbent democratic governor Joe Corzine to become the Governor of Jersey. He is due for re-election in 2013. Under his tenure, Christie has made news for his tough stances against public sector unions and for his somewhat defiant attitude against President Obama’s stimulus package. Famously, Christie rejected federal funds earmarked for the construction of a new transportation tunnel between New Jersey and New York City. Though the funds would stimulate employment, Christie argued that the costs for his state would much higher than predicted and that the employment creation would eventually end up costing New Jersey tax payers too much.

 

As an outspoken conservative, yet pragmatic Republican, Christie has attracted the attention of Republican strategists who are looking for a candidate that can appease the extreme rightwing and active party constituency—fond of the Tea Party and likely to actively vote in the upcoming primaries—and be electable in November 2012, where moderates will be the key voting bloc. 

 

Just a few weeks ago, Texas governor Rick Perry was the name that could win over the rightwing likely primary voters and be competitive against Obama. However, Perry has proven to be a disappointment. His moderate positions on illegal immigration and his daring decision to require sixth-grade girls in Texas to be vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (which some critics have explained by Perry’s proximity to the company that produces the vaccines) have made him unpopular among rightwing Republicans. His positions of gun control and his unscripted statements on social security (he referred to it as “Ponzi scheme”) highlight his record as undisciplined in debates and imprecise in his discussions of public policies.  In just a few weeks, Perry did not meet the strict conservative Tea Party standards and might not even be competitive against Obama in 2012.

 

The recent hype about Perry has now moved on to Christie. Christie’s conservative credentials are promoted by many Republican donors and strategists as sufficiently good to satisfy the hardcore Republican base. The fact that he won an election in an overwhelmingly democratic state also proves that he can be competitive against Obama among moderates. While Perry is the governor of an overwhelmingly Republican state, Christie leads a state where Obama got with 57% of the vote in 2008.

Since all hopefuls have a track record that can be used against, them and the intense and highly scrutinized campaign trail will inevitably generate controversies, many are pushing Christie as a sufficiently good compromise Republican candidate.

 

Christie might be a better candidate than Perry. However, the effort to recruit him reflects the real Republican problem. No matter what candidate strategists bring forth, the problem in the Republican Party has to do with the internal divisions between those who want no nominate a true conservative and those who want a moderate who can capitalize on Obama’s weaknesses and bring the White House back to the Republican camp in 2012. As long as that conflict is not resolved, whatever candidate emerges as a potential compromise Republican candidate will face the same impossible road to victory in trying to balance a hardcore conservative constituency more interested in principles and the pragmatic wing that, understanding that the electorate is overwhelmingly moderate, want a candidate who can actually be competitive against Obama in 2012.