By Jonathan Bradley
Around the beginning of August, Republicans were in a fix. With President Barack Obama's poll figures scraping new lows and the economy remaining sluggish, their chances of winning the 2012 election had never looked better. Could they really be so lucky as to regain the White House four years after President George W. Bush had trashed the party's reputation on economic management, national security, and basic administrative competence? Would they really be able to make Obama a one-term president, and replace him with...
...well, with whom? Mitt Romney seemed strong, had experience as the Governor of Massachusetts, and looked presidential, but he was a Mormon whose state health care policy was the basis for Obamacare, and had a longer history of saying conservative thing than doing them. The base had no doubts about Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann's willingness to do conservative things, but the party's establishment saw her as unreliable, unexperienced, and unelectable. The rest of the field consisted of a gaggle of jokers and no-hopers: Herman Cain? Ron Paul? Rick Santorum?
If only someone of whom both the base and the establishment approved would enter the race. A charismatic governor who appealed to Tea Party types but had the kind of solid experience that would draw swing voters. Republicans thought they had a candidate who fit that description to a T. But could he be convinced to run?
Texas Governor Rick Perry could indeed be convinced to run, and, at first, conservatives thought their prayers had been answered. Perry's strong Christian faith and good ol' boy swagger delighted Tea Partiers so much that Bachmann was quickly brushed from serious contention. The establishment admired his personable, likable campaign style. Thank god, thought the GOP; they would not be stuck with Mitt Romney!
And now, barely two months later, Republicans might be feeling a touch of déjà vu. President Obama's poll figures are still low, the economy is still sluggish, and their chances of winning in 2012 have never looked better. Get ready for Obama to be replaced with...
...well, with whom? Rick Perry turned out not to be the saviour he appeared to be. He once mandated that 12 year old Texan girls receive a vaccine against Human Papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted infection that causes cervical cancer. To conservatives, this looked like an excessive government intrusion into the family, and one that might encourage promiscuity.
Perry also signed a law permitting the children of illegal immigrants to attend Texas state universities and pay the cheaper tuition rates charged to residents. For a party more concerned with deporting illegal immigrants than educating them, this appeared a great betrayal. It didn't help that Perry sniped at his critics that they were being "heartless." The unpalatable Mitt Romney looked as inevitable as ever.
If only someone of whom both the base and the establishment really approved would enter the race. A charismatic governor who appealed to Tea Party types but had the kind of solid experience that would draw swing voters. Again, Republicans think they have a candidate who fits that description to a T. But can he be convinced to run?
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie might be convinced to run, but he almost certainly isn't the magic candidate the GOP has been looking for.
Sure, he looks good on paper: A personable, popular Republican with proven appeal to swing state voters and a rough-and-ready, working class charm. He sounds like he's from the cast of HBO mob drama "The Sopranos," but with none of the gangster menace. (Perhaps he's the Bobby Baccalieri of New Jersey politics?) In fact, he's kind of cuddly. He comes across as what we in Australia would call a good bloke.
There's no doubt, either, that there's an opening for Christie. The lacklustre fundraising of the announced candidates is evidence of the weak field, and Christie is widely seen as one of the party's rising stars. If he announces soon — and it would have to be soon, because filing for the likely to be crucial Florida primary closes at the end of October — he might be able to play catch up after a late entry.
None of that, however, means that he's the candidate Republicans think he is. Just as Rick Perry looked perfect before he entered the race, but was quickly found to have all the flaws of a regular politician, GOP hypemongers have been ignoring Christie's negatives. For a start, there are the suggestions he's not as adept at governing across the aisle as he has suggested. The Governor's popularity in his home state, while once high, has been sinking. And Conor Friedersdorf and Dan Amira have both outlined a number of issues on which Christie has violated Conservative orthodoxy: He's talked up the virtues of compromise; he doesn't think exceptionalism is an innate American trait; and he's soft on illegal immigration, climate change, and gun control.
None of which is to say that Christie won't make a convincing tilt at the presidency. As late as it is for him to enter, he might even win if he did seek the nomination. But if he does, it will only be after conservatives have come to terms with his imperfections. This will be a year in which the GOP settles for a nominee rather than coronates one. As Jonathan Bernstein explains, there are significant structural reasons to explain Republican dissatisfaction with their candidates, and it's unlikely they'll find someone that pleases them.
That's no reason for Democrats to breathe easy, however. Republicans will learn to love the one they're with, whoever he or she may be, and that candidate could very well win next year's election. Republicans are dissatisfied with their field, but Americans are dissatisfied with their president.
30 September 2011