Chris Christie and the Elusive Moderate Vote in 2016
Recently, Republican governor Chris Christie has come under fire for his alleged involvement in a traffic crisis caused by lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, supposedly predicated on some bitter revenge plot meant to punish a political opponent.
Now, he's making headlines and under intense scrutiny as the subject of a federal probe regarding a $25 million advertising campaign in the wake of Hurricane Sandy last year.
It's not surprising that the media is capitalizing on an opportunity to paint a prominent Republican in a negative light. We've come to expect no less when they smell blood in the water. But still, there seems to be something more to this than the usual mudslinging the media's wont to do.
The media narrative surrounding the alleged Christie scandal, given his apparent popularity with the political center, is that it is particularly detrimental for the right -- something of a preemptive eulogy for Republicans' election hopes. There seems an implied assumption that with Christie's fall from grace, the right may have lost its greatest glimmer of hope for a candidate who can rally moderate votes. As Justin Barigona at the liberal website PoliticusUSA puts it, the "GOP is going to have to scramble to find another viable candidate in 2016 to face-off with Hillary Clinton."
It's a recurring thematic device that the media employs. In this view, everybody knows that Chris Christie has broad appeal. His recent landslide victory in a blue state proves it -- a victory he only achieved through his very public rejection of more conservative Republicans, argues Aaron Blake at the Washington Post. So obviously, it will be his sensible, pragmatic, reach-across-the-aisle brand of conservatism that will give Republicans the best opportunity to win control of the executive office in 2016, right? Sure, he strikes those Tea Party nuts and others on the extreme right as an Obama-lover or a weak conservative or whatever, but that's the fringe. It's that prized body of moderates that Republicans need to need to attract.
By buying into any of that at face value, we conservatives would effectively concede our position before we even begin to present our case. And that's a shame, because it's a strong case. Small government and big liberty, in America, can be a powerful story to tell in opposition to the big government and small liberty to be had in a redistributive nanny state.
So it's worth asking: why is it that the left can proudly run and support a left-wing extremist like Obama, who is extreme in both fiscal and social terms, but the right must continually rely upon the hope of a centrist candidate to garner independent votes? Honestly, Barack Obama's ideology is so far to the left that after only a short time in office, avowed Venezuelan socialist Hugo Chavez warned Communist Fidel Castro, "Comrade Obama! Fidel, careful or we are going to end up to his right."
If we concede that these are the terms by which we must select candidates and commit to finding a person who might attract the "moderate" vote rather than one who represents a consistent and defined position with which we conservatives generally agree, what we are left with is a choice between a left-wing extremist and a person who is not-so-left as the other, or if we're really lucky, a person who's just right of center.
In the last two elections, the Republican presidential ticket has been occupied by a guy known as a "maverick" for challenging party convictions, and a guy who spearheaded Obamacare's beta-test stage in Massachusetts. Both "moderate" Republicans by all accounts, and deemed the best electable options by media honchos. The outcome? Less than desirable, if you're a conservative and presidential election results are any indicator.
So why is it so incredibly important that we select a candidate who will pander to centrist wafflers, when the left is obviously bound by no such constraint?
Again, the argument for limited federal authority is a sound one, embedded in our foundational principles. To argue for that is not radical. Radical, in terms of this country and its Constitution, is to argue for the expansion of federal authority, not its limitation.
At any rate, what good can come of pandering to centrist wafflers at all when there is a distinct ideological divide in this country such that the extremes cannot reasonably meet? We can't expect to reduce the federal government's role in our lives while expanding federal jurisdictions, after all. What middle ground can possibly be found between these two paths?
We keep hearing that we can somehow bridge this ideological gap, and that building those bridges across the party aisle is the avenue to success for Republicans. Jonah Goldberg regales his readers with a relevant example of this fallacy in his book, A Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas:
The point is that sometimes the extreme is 100% correct, while the centrist position is 100% wrong.
If I say that we need one hundred feet of bridge to cross a one hundred foot chasm that makes me an extremist. Somebody else says we don't need to build a bridge at all, because we don't need to cross the chasm in the first place. That makes him an extremist. The third guy is the centrist because he insists that we compromise by building a fifty foot bridge that ends in the middle of thin air. As an extremist, I'd tell you that the other extremist has a much better grasp on reality than the centrist does. The extremists have a serious disagreement about what to do, and the centrist has no idea what to do, and doesn't want to bother with figuring it out.
In other words, the moderates, the centrists, the independents, etc., couldn't present a reasonable path between expanding and limiting federal authority anyway, regardless of how badly they want there to be one. If the two sides of our current ideological divide were to construct legitimate arguments and debate the topics with conviction, however, wouldn't that confused mass in the political center be compelled to make a proper choice between a bigger government and a smaller one?
The truth is, moderates often vacillate ideologically because they lack the knowledge or conviction to choose a side in a debate that is clearly an ideological one. They have no desired path, only a desire to be moderate, because they believe that being a moderate is rational and their indecisiveness earns them some sort of intellectual credibility. And when one side is arguing for the extreme (yet ideologically consistent) position, while the other argues for the moderate (yet ideologically vague) position, the result is that the extremist will, often times, get his point across much more convincingly than the moderate.
Don't believe me? This was precisely the problem Romney faced in 2012. Obama's argument for Obamacare was an extreme argument for collectivism, yes, but he was ideologically consistent in arguing it. Romney, on the other hand, had to explain why he believed collectivism sometimes makes sense (Massachusetts' healthcare) and sometimes it doesn't (Obamacare). Many voters were undoubtedly left with the impression that Romney had no idea what to do about healthcare at all.
The very best we conservatives can do is lay out our argument for individualism and self-determination, and let the other side lay out their argument as to why collectivism and redistribution will "work" in spite of countless historical circumstances (and the current evidence that Obamacare provides) where it hasn't. Let the moderates then decide which would better serve this nation.
Sure, Christie is being shamed by the media. That's more clockwork than revelation, and it shouldn't alter the driving message of conservatives' cause one bit. We believe in a smaller federal government, the reduction of national debt, and the principles of states' rights and liberty. That is the only message which could successfully counter that of the hard-lined left which produced Barack Obama.
And while Chris Christie has tons of charisma and he's a valuable proponent of that message in many ways, there is certainly no need to assume that the GOP would be lost without him. It's much more important that we be consistent in disseminating that overarching message, and select a candidate in 2016 based on how skillfully and convincingly he or she embodies it.
We certainly shouldn't anoint, in advance, a candidate because there is some presumed appeal with moderates. Moderates typically don't know what they want anyway. Our job between now and then shouldn't be to worry about and cater to their indecisiveness, but to convince them why we are right, and the left is wrong.