Written for the Huffington Post:
The President steps away from the podium, Beyonce belts out a few bars (or does she?), and then – without delay – comes the question: Who’s next? Somewhere in Trenton, a large man with a short fuse is the answer. Chris Christie is the most electable man in the country. It’s simple: Americans regard Congress with scorn. Chris Christie is the anti-Congress. Americans will seriously consider electing him president in 2016.
The 113th Congress’s nine percent approval rating stems from the difficult truth that President Obama is a shepherd with an unruly flock – one with whom this country is deeply disenchanted. But “nine percent” is abstract, a difficult figure to grasp. Just how bitter is American cynicism? With just how much ire does Citizen X gaze upon her leaders?
Public Policy Polling sought a tangible answer to that question. Its recent poll (the results of which were published earlier this month) did just that. According to PPP, Congress is less popular than brussels sprouts, traffic jams, and NFL replacement referees. But it gets worse: Americans have less taste for Congress than they do for root canals, colonoscopies or lice. Nine percent means insurmountable attrition and enough cynicism to makes the writings of Christopher Hitchens look like they’re smiling.
Why such severe disillusionment? Congress is stuck. Consider the filibuster, through which senators can shift the agenda by merely talking about something other than the floor’s proceedings. We watched again, last week, as Harry Reid’s hopes of doing away with the filibuster disappeared in a Congressional inferno. But beyond the filibuster, parliamentary procedure allows for any senator to stop a bill from reaching the floor. Chairmen of committees can ensure that certain controversial ideas never see the halls of the Cannon or Dirksen office buildings; such ideas live and die in hearing rooms.
Or consider regulations surrounding the debt ceiling: Congress may authorize spending beyond the government’s means, then prohibit the president from borrowing money. Paul Krugman summarized last month’s Republican approach to this issue as “openly threatening to use that potential for catastrophe.” I’d summarize it as GOP lawmakers simply bringing to bear the tools of engagement that legislative precedent grants them.
Give a toddler a delicate martini glass and warn him not to break it. That’s Congressional protocol. Don’t act surprised by the inevitable: He’ll grab it and he’ll play with it, he’ll shatter it, and he’ll hurt himself. Such legislative immobility has become convention. We can assume that the normality of gridlock – the comfort of being anchored in a sea of antagonism – has had a disenchanting effect on Americans. Not only is gridlock legal, but it’s encouraged.
Members of Congress issue statements and arrive at decisions based purely upon political efficacy. For better or for worse, Chris Christie doesn’t. Representatives put up a virtually impenetrable block against President Obama, shrouded in an ideological guise, but stemming from partisan convictions. Chris Christie doesn’t. When he thinks the president is right, he pats the president on the back. When he doesn’t, he’s sure to tell you so.
After Hurricane Sandy, Christie has stumbled upon an asset that Rudy Giuliani exploited in the years that came after 2001: becoming the instantaneous champion of those who hurt; the one who mends, who restores faith, who rebuilds.
But this Congress has granted Christie’s case a new flavor. In being that champion, in mending, in restoring faith, he’s had to fight Congress all the way. And when your enemy is loathed more than root canals, colonoscopies and lice, you aren’t just a rebel with a cause – you’re a hero among men.
Each time Christie acts against the will of Congress, confronts John Boehner, or operates out of step with either party’s legislative agenda, his speechwriters begin to pen the first lines of his election night victory address.
While Christie’s most significant political liability will invariably be the Republican base, a painful reality has been seared into the collective psyche of the Republican party: winning the base spells trouble in winning the country.
In 2008, we bore witness to a moderate candidate who felt forced to pander to the fringes of his party as a means of reaching the GOP nomination. By the time McCain was nominated, he had alienated millions of conservative democrats. We saw the same thing this year, but to a more severe degree.
Mitt Romney was the ‘etch-a-sketch’ candidate, altering his platform at his own convenience. Romney’s political volatility may have been his poison. He appeared a man who would ascend to the presidency at any cost. An opportunist and a sellout is a noxious mixture.
Whatever his confidences, Chris Christie doesn’t betray them – at least, he hasn’t yet. In recent weeks, Christie has wrestled with whether to accept a federal expansion of Medicaid for New Jersey. If he opts to take the money, he wins the hearts of Democrats, independents, and his current constituents. If he doesn’t, he’s one step closer to securing the support of friends to his far right. Even Christie’s dilemmas are victories; his lose-lose scenarios are win-win. He can be a Jon Huntsman with a little gusto and a real chance.
Chris Christie holds the rare opportunity to govern his state within the framework of his own moderate conservative ideology, while maintaing measured reason; it’s a worldview that renders him not blind to rationality or averse to nuance, but receptive and cautious in his acceptance of his president’s word. Christie can defy legislative immobility. And he can do it all while the cameras are rolling.