Wednesday, 6 November 2013

The real reason Christie is overjoyed today


Earlier I reported on the strong position of Rand Paul and Ted Cruz in the fight for the 2012 Republican nomination. But a very recent phenomenon may tilt the table a bit in the direction of Christ Christie, and I don’t mean his massive gubernatorial win, although that helps. I’m talking about the dramatic changes in the weird world of Republican money.

Before we get to Christie himself, let’s refresh our memories on how Republican money works. Right-wing money flows in two very different streams. The first stream, the pragmatists: Freedomworks, the Koch brothers’ Americans For Prosperity (AFP), Crossroads, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Mitch McConnell. These guys want to win elections, even at the cost of a little “purity” on the ideological front.

Then the extremists: the Heritage Foundation, Club For Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF), the Madison Project, Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin (who may be targeting Lindsey Graham next). They are all about shutting down Obamacare and the government, and launching primary attacks against Republicans suspected of impurity.

The extremists seemingly had the upper hand during the drama about the government shutdown. Ted Cruz was the star, and congressional Republicans who were thinking about working with Obama to avoid catastrophe were warned by the extremists: if you go wobbly on us, we will find a primary challenger to run you out of office.

Meanwhile, corporate America and their pals in the financial sector, stout Republicans all, members of the pragmatist faction, peered nervously into the economic abyss that Ted Cruz wanted to gleefully fling America into, and cringed.

And then, the empire struck back. The pragmatists, deep of pocket, warned the extremists that they were going to start steering more money to sane candidates, and shut out the loonier tea-drinking candidates.

First, as I reported earlier, they began cutting off funds to tea-related political groups, just to get their attention. And now they are wheeling out the big guns. When the extremist SCF began spending money to beat Mitch McConnell in his 2014 reelection race and attack other Senators who rejected Cruz’s shutdown effort, establishment Republicans imposed the death penalty on SCF: they said they would not do business with any firm which also worked with the SCF. Cruz was forced to promise not to openly support the SCF effort to purge moderates. The NRSC has already cut off money to one firm which works with SCF; other firms who do business with them haven’t gotten the axe yet, but the battle has just begun. Also, the pragmatists are setting up a new fund-raising team, Defending Main Street, to defend sane Republicans from primary challenges by the extremist wing, a deliberate, open challenge to the extremists. That group raised millions of dollars very quickly, because the old-school Republican money boys are really angry.

This strategy proved itself with shocking clarity in the Virginia gubernatorial race between McAuliffe and tea-drinker Ken Cucinelli. The Chamber Of Commerce turned their backs on Cucinelli. The Republican National Committee only gave him a tiny amount for ads. Chris Christie refused to campaign for him. But most insulting of all, the Republican Governors Association dumped a ton of totally unnecessary money into Chris Christie’s fore-ordained blowout, while pulling their money out of the Cucinelli race, where even a modest amount of money could have squeaked him past McAuliffe. That was…a message to the hard-core tea people.

The argument the pragmatists are making, is truly striking: “We pragmatists are spending money to beat Democrats, so why are you extremists spending money to beat fellow Republicans?”

Here and there, you can see the pragmatists tiptoeing carefully, tacking to the right now and then, retreating now and then. AFP has been spending aggressively in local elections and local officials are starting to resent it, so they are likely to be more careful where they dump their money. And Freedomworks, a pragmatic group, oddly decided to back Thad Cochran’s challenger, the neo-Confederate, possibly to regain their street cred with the extremists.

The GOP politicians themselves are becoming a bit braver, standing up to Ted Cruz in a way that we wouldn’t have seen two months ago. Tea-Party hero Rick Santorum said that Ted Cruz had a praiseworthy objective in trying to kill Obamacare, but he did unintentionally more harm than good because he failed in planning and in presentation. Just imagine Santorum poking Cruz in the eye like that a month ago!

Chris Christie pointedly contrasted his fight to stop gay marriage, which he quit when he saw it was hopeless, with Ted Cruz’s fight to stop Obamacare. Christie ridiculed the notion of engaging in “pointless, self-destructive actions that make a lot of noise but don’t accomplish anything”, and specifically criticized the costs of the government shutdown. “I’m a conservative, but I’m also a smart, realistic one. We can’t afford to nominate a Don Quixote conservative for President.”

Woah. Yeah, he’s running. And he’s already throwing elbows rightward.

Meanwhile, even some of the extremist groups are trimming their sails to the left, just a bit. The Ending Spending PAC, the group set up by the Ameritrade people, supported Ted Cruz when he was running for Senate. But in the 2013 special congressional election in Alabama, pitting business-oriented Bradley Byrne against tea-drinking Cruz-worshipper Dean Young, the PAC backed Byrne, the sane candidate. Of course Byrne was so obviously crazy that even the Tea Party axis – Club For Growth, Cruz, Palin – shunned him.

But the main trend here, is that moderate country-club Republicans want to take back the party. And their guy is Chris Christie, their most competitive 2016 candidate. Because they like winning.

Although I have pointed out the obvious fact that the far right is still suspicious of the Kenyan-hugging Christie, there are ways he could overcome that problem once the 2016 primary season begins.

First of all, when he’s not hugging Obama, Christie is mostly a reliable conservative, on social issues, fiscal issues, etc. He did give up the fight to stop gay marriage in New Jersey, but he did fight on in that battle until it finally became a lost cause. The far right’s suspicion of him is perhaps more about his blue-state address than about his actual opinions.

Second of all, the dreaded gauntlet of the Iowa caucuses may not be so dreadful after all. The caucuses have lost some of their cred with the political commentariat precisely because the Iowa GOP is so obviously dominated by extremists. Notice that in the last two presidential caucuses Iowa supported the far-right candidate, who then went on to lose New Hampshire, and the nomination, to a more moderate candidate. Accordingly, moderate Iowa Republicans like Terry Branstad are pushing back against the zealots, who are themselves beginning to split into pieces, with the social conservatives and the Tea Party showing more and more irritation with the Paul supporters. It’s not impossible that Christie could wade into this chaos and, at the very least, win enough votes to avoid embarrassment.

Third, southerners may see Christie as a rude, sneaky New Yorker, but the southern strategy for extreme conservatives ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. The 2012 Republican nomination was essentially wrapped up in early April when Santorum gave up. At that point, the candidates had fought 37 contests. Only a few of those races were in the deep south: Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee. Overall Romney took 21 of the 37, while the far-right favorite, Santorum, took 11. So a nominee doesn’t need the south to win the nomination, although of course it helps.

Fourth, in 2012 Romney was one moderate going against a whole barnyard of right-wing jackasses. Deep into the primary season, he was still benefitting from the fact that Gingrich, Santorum and Paul were splitting the far-right anti-Romney vote. If Christie is the lone non-tea drinker running against a gaggle of Cruzes, Pauls and Ryans in 2016, he could benefit from the same split in the loony vote, particularly in Iowa, which as the first contest is going to see the widest range of whackaloon candidates.

Fifth, the party rules may help Christie. Many Republican primary contests are open or semi-open, allowing moderate voters to take part and give Christie a leg up against far-right candidates supported by party loyalists. A number of delegate clusters are winner-take-all, which would help Christie if he is likely to win a plurality against multiple tea-party challengers, in other words a 40-30-30 split, for example, or a 30-20-20-20 split. Most states send their delegates to conventions and committees to hash out the results, which potentially allows party professionals to give Christie a helping hand against the zealous voter base.

Sixth, Tea Fatigue. In 2010 the tea movement was a cool way to bash Obama and trumpet your patriotism. Now it stands for Ted Cruz, shutdowns, and a growing series of patently insane statements from the tea people, on rape, birth certificates, secession, and other nonsense. America is finally starting to get weirded out by Team Tea. Once a comical demagogue like Ted Cruz faces the harsh light of the national media, he often wilts: Joe McCarthy and Huey Long only lasted a few years before people got sick of them, and McCarthy in particular melted quite quickly under the harsh, unforgiving glare of television lights. The clock may be ticking even faster for Ted Cruz, who may be embracing the television cameras more than is good for him. Ditto for Rand Paul, who was just eviscerated by Rachel Maddow.

And of course Tea Fatigue will be exacerbated if the leading Tea People continue to drop trou. The Ted Cruz backlash is moving with neck-snapping speed through the political establishment. And poor Rand Paul, who went postal when he got busted for plagiarizing Wiki -- so he has an absurdly thin skin, and the staffers who prep his events are juvenile morons, and he’s probably very uninformed too. So he will be unprepared when the 2015 debates begin; and although he's hoping his dad's posses in the Iowa caucuses will get him a win there, he will then have to face the big grownup GOP guns in New Hampshire and on Super Tuesday. And then could will get ugly. Already the far-right Washington Times took the extraordinary step of dropping Paul’s weekly column, after he got caught plagiarizing: when a rightwing rag like the Time says you’re a crap journalist, you’re really at the bottom of the food chain.

The two main ways for the tea people to puncture the Christie balloon are as follows. First, go after his messy ethical record, which I’ve already reported on. Among other things, Christie gained a reputation as U.S. Attorney, for racking up gigantic travel expenses and then stonewalling investigations into the spending. Romney rejected him as running mate because even after vetting: there were still too many questions.

And then go after Christie in the debates: when he is challenged by another politician or a reporter, he loses his cool and becomes very nasty. Yelling, insulting, interrupting. First law of 21st-century politics: don’t look like an idiot on TV.

And of course Team Blue has one, and exactly one, candidate who can puncture Christie: Hillary. She wins across the board, and she even beats Christie in New Jersey: she led him by six there, the day he won reelection by more than twenty points. Against Christie, she can even compete in a lot of southern states, although contrariwise Christie might be more competitive in northern states like Ohio and Pennsylvania than a tobacco-spitting loon like Cruz or Paul would be. 

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