The Anti-Congress: Why Chris Christie Is the Most Electable Man in Politics

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.

Four Thoughts on the First Presidential Debate

Written for the Emory Wheel:

Though they shared a stage at the University of Denver on Wednesday evening, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama seemed in different worlds. Their tones presented an eerie, almost disconcerting dichotomy: Where Romney contested, Obama conversed; where Romney insisted, Obama dismissed; Where Romney had just finished his sprint up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, Obama was on a coffee break between lectures at the University of Chicago. The candidates were entirely incongruous.

Why did Obama seem so much less prepared than Romney did?

What was it that gave Romney such a definitive debate victory? Did the Commission for Presidential Debates make a mistake in choosing Jim Lehrer? The following is my take on some of these questions that have pervaded American minds and airwaves since Wednesday night.

A Thought on the Downfalls of Passivity

For several weeks, the Romney-Ryan ticket has been the subject of intense media scrutiny. News personalities and journalists alike have pushed the ever-evasive pair to provide specifics on its tax and healthcare plans (e.g. Paul Ryan’s recent interview with Chris Wallace). If Romney felt that he could afford to shirk the electorate’s pleas for specifics thus far, he certainly must have believed that he would be pressed on such details during the first nationally-televised debate.

Romney came prepared: he marched on-stage Wednesday night with a heaping arsenal of statistics and figures. But the “specifics” Romney spewed didn’t quench the nation’s thirst for details. His supposed plans, proposals and numbers rang hollow in the ears of several venerated commentators. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo noted that Romney’s arguments were laden with glaring miscalculations. “The numbers simply don’t add up,” Marshall wrote. “It really is simple math. The studies Romney cited aren’t even studies. A couple are just (op-eds) by his advisors.”

New York Times columnist Gail Collins echoed Marshall’s point. According to Romney’s emphatic debate proclamations, she noted that, “taxes will go down, but not revenues. The health care reform plan will go away, except for all the popular parts, which will magically remain intact.” Romney’s words were glazed in opportunism and in want of coherence.

To the chagrin of many on the left, President Obama employed a crippling passivity. His subtle nods, reverberating silences and almost patronizing smirks propagated a general air of concession. Pinned against Romney’s feigned charisma, Obama’s efforts were futile; his submissive energy fell flat.

The president’s passivity didn’t afford him room to hit forcefully on either of Marshall’s or Collins’ points. Can you imagine if Obama had asked Romney to add up the numbers he had presented or to cite even one of his “studies?” Mitt Romney didn’t win on the coattails of substance. He won in the absence of an opponent on the offensive.

A Thought on Benefits of Passivity

On Wednesday night, Obama didn’t mention Romney’s “47 percent” comments. He didn’t mention Bain Capital. He didn’t mention Romney’s offshore bank accounts. Romney’s advisors may have equipped him with a quick and potent retort for each issue, but the candidate was scarcely handed the opportunity to use one.

The next day, Romney appeared on a cable television program to concede that his comments on the 47 percent had been “just completely wrong.” As a result of Obama’s passivity, Romney’s rejoinder and attempt to shift the national conversation was reduced to a small subtext in the blogosphere, in place of reaching nearly 38 million attentive pairs of ears.

A Thought on Priorities

Beyond strides to shroud his tax returns in a mist of evasion, Mitt Romney’s mind is presently one-track, ingrained with a single abiding goal: become the president of the United States. Obama’s is more complex: be the president of the United States.

In a recent Rolling Stone feature piece, Michael Lewis profiles a Barack Obama whose approach to governing has been stripped of any tangible concern for public opinion. Lewis draws a rough sketch of the issues that sat atop President Obama’s psyche when he was awoken from his sleep and informed that the nuclear fallout in Japan may have placed the United States in the worldwide path of a radiation cloud.

Lewis writes: “At that very moment (if you were the president), you were deciding on whether to approve a ridiculously audacious plan to assassinate Osama bin Laden in his house in Pakistan. You were arguing, as ever, with Republican leaders in Congress about the budget. And you were receiving daily briefings on various revolutions in various Arab countries.”

Obama has made a practice of limiting his presidential wardrobe exclusively to navy or gray suits. The president’s rationale? His existence is plagued by a tiny margin for error; he simply can’t afford to allocate brainpower for decisions and exercises whose implications are trivial. It’s safe to assume that the debate was just another (less weighty) issue on his heavy plate.

A Thought on the Moderator

Jim Lehrer was the victim of an off-night. The Los Angeles Times synopsized most major criticisms of his performance, noting that Lehrer “didn’t enforce time limits, gave Obama four more minutes to speak than he gave Romney and didn’t clarify some of the arcane terms tossed about by the two combatants.”

But it’s important to remember that this debate, by Lehrer terms, was a fluke. After the 2008 election season, the news anchor announced that the McCain-Obama contest would be his last. Only the tenacity of the Commission for Presidential Debates would persuade him to return for one final rodeo.

Lehrer is widely regarded as the most skilled and adept moderator of the era of televised debates. He has successfully steered debates in during election year since 1988, each performance lauded success by standards of objectivity and direction. A recent Pew Center poll ranked the show he spearheaded and long anchored, PBS NewsHour, “one of the most trusted news sources in the country.” This week’s widely-proliferated notion of Lehrer as the debate’s “loser” may bear relevance on Wednesday’s event in Denver, but should count as only a blemish on an otherwise distinguished and prolific career.

Fluorescent Traffic Signals – Why the GOP Needs to Read More Shakespeare

We seem to be a country continually prone to missing the signs.

We’ve heard the story of the drowning man who refused the aid of three rescue boats, confident that God would save him; the novice batter who had just been pitched two change-ups, and didn’t realize that the fastball must be next; the chain smoker who was warned by doctor after doctor that tobacco is the leading cause of lung cancer.

We read in the literary canon of tragic figures like Macbeth, whose fall comes with a series of hints and premonitions. We remember domestic events of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries – assassinations, breaches of national security – which many still believe could have been prevented, had officials seen the signs – or, more significantly, been looking for them.

We do, perhaps – in both our most ostensible and most intimate pursuits – suffer from an epidemic of ignorance toward much that points us in the right direction; we have a frequent proclivity to forgo society’s beaming and fluorescent traffic signals.

The epidemic could not come at a less opportune time for its latest victim. It evokes the words of John McKnight, in an introduction to his The Careless Society: “It is the ability of citizens to care that creates strong communities and able democracies.” The latest victim seems blatantly not to care about, nor to take heed of warnings issued by the events of the recent past. That victim is the Republican Party.

On George W. Bush’s final day in office, his approval rating had tanked to 22%, the lowest final rating in Gallup’s more than seventy-year history. In the months – even years – leading up to the presidential election of 2008, Bush was easily the least-popular president since our nation’s founding.

The American legacy that he left, it was widely believed on both sides of the political spectrum, was one that would necessitate desperate and thorough repair. John McCain – once a maverick – had recently become a Bush-policy convert and had cultivated a record of supporting some of the president’s most controversial decisions. For him, the race should have been over as soon as it began. For the democrats – who could easily have been the party of consistency and virtue – a win should have been comfortable and clean.

As we remember, the race for the Democratic nomination was the furthest thing from clean; more accurately, it was a long, excessive, and grimy process of mud-slinging and insult-dodging. Only in June, just a few short months before the nominating convention, did Hillary Clinton swallow her pride and, with a memorable and tepid, “this isn’t exactly the party I’d planned,” step aside for Barack Obama.

But in between the beginning of primary season and the eloquent Clinton exit crept many, many opportunities for what should have been the most electable Democratic ticket in American history to self-destruct. The party teetered and tottered – allowing each candidate to expose weaknesses and further wither any chances of a left-wing White House. Some argue that the scrutiny of the primary campaign simply brought on the vetting process a few months early. However, when Clinton told reporters that she couldn’t drop out because “Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California,” and when Obama was steadily attacked for his relationship with his pastor, the candidates were only adding more ammunition to the ever-quickening automatic weapon of the GOP.

We have begun to hear echoes of 2008’s teeter and totter in this year’s Republican primary. While President Obama’s approval ratings don’t nearly equate to those of his predecessor, he is not considered to be widely popular, and has certainly ticked off many who would have sworn their allegiance to the Candidate Obama three years ago. By many accounts (though most are anecdotal and few are based in statistical evidence) Obama could be just as beatable as a Bush-type figure. Without doubt, a soon-rising and largely-backed Republican nominee could quell much of the poll inflation that Obama has received from his incumbency.

By letting the Wealthy Greaser duke it out with the Pillsbury Doughboy of American Values, the GOP has proven its marked lack of regard for American electoral trends. The longer Mitt Romney shares an antagonistic stage with Newt Gingrich, the more difficult it will become for the ultimate nominee to defeat the president. Of course, this isn’t the advice I would give the candidates themselves.

What would I tell them? Keep fighting; it’s good for you.

The Irony of Framing the Debate – How Extremism Puts Things into Perspective

This piece won’t be as long as usual; it’s just a thought I had.

In the wake of recent debates and campaign stops, it has quickly become clear that the Republican presidential field generally errs on the side of political and religious extremism, or at least make statements that rely on acute (and often blind) chauvinism. Those of us who listen closely – even those of us who don’t – have watched as candidate after candidate vies for the hearts of the GOP base.

Rick Perry, in a blend of visible one-eighties and glaring political opportunism, has stated his belief that Social Security is a Ponzi Scheme and “a monstrous lie,” and has set out to eliminate it. Michele Bachmann has mixed church with her stately undertakings, and has even called into question whether or not this country needs a Department of Education – it is, perhaps, too rooted in centralized government to work, she claims. Newt Gingrich has promised to repeal the healthcare bill that has already insured upwards of thirty thousand previously unqualified Americans. Mitt Romney has vowed to cut federal spending and cut taxes drastically, for all segments of the population, which would put at risk our economy’s growth. Rick Santorum’s “social” policies are simply a mandate for prejudice. The field is chock-full of radicalism.

We’re being inundated with anxious, daunting flashes of “what would Rick Perry do on his first day?” and “could Michele Bachmann really get elected?” “President Gingrich,” we think, shuddering, or “President Romney.”

Watching the GOP debates helps me put things in perspective. Because, after all: how relieving does “President McCain” sound right about now?

Leaving God at the Door – Why Michele Bachmann Needs to Reaffirm Kennedy’s Promise

As featured on the Huffington Post:

With Elai Shine

First, she said it was a joke. Now, she’s saying it was a metaphor. One thing is clear: Michele Bachmann thinks that hurricanes happen because of welfare.

Last week, shortly after a strong earthquake shook the East Coast and Hurricane Irene left millions without power, Michele Bachmann spoke at a campaign rally. “I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians,” she said. “We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’…(He) know(s) government is on a morbid obesity diet and we’ve got to rein in the spending.”

Those of us who were born during the Clinton years. We’ve never known a political landscape not shaped by religious influence and the impact of political guidelines brought on by the “Moral Majority.” In fact, for as long as we can remember, Church has often been mistaken for State (or vice-versa).

Two presidents, most notably, have had to pass a religion test during the campaigns that preceded their elections (albeit for disparate reasons): John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama.

Before 1960, no Catholic had ever ascended to the country’s highest office. Accordingly, Kennedy was subjected to a nationwide loyalty oath of sorts. At rally after rally, press conference after press conference, reporters would ask him the same questions: Would his religion influence or impair his political judgement as president?

In Obama’s case, the questions were a bit different – and fueled more by steadfast intolerance than legitimate uncertainty. Was he a Muslim? Or was he a Christian? If he was a Muslim, did his presence in an Indonesian Madrassa during his early youth affect his current views on the American dream? And if he was a Christian, had he been indoctrinated by an “anti-American” preacher? The questions were sharp and pervasive.

Kennedy had to prove that he was the right flavor of Christian. (“Whatever issue may come before me as president,” he said in 1960, “I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”) Obama had to prove that he was Christian period. (“I’m a Christian by choice,” he’s said during his term in office.) Both had to prove that their faith in the country outweighed any other faiths they may have held. Both were held to a standard that defied and ignored any preordained ideas of an acceptable relationship between religion and policy in presidential duties. As a consequence, both gave into media pressures and testified publicly and unequivocally that their faith in God was an indication of that alone.

Michele Bachmann’s faith in God is an indication of her political mindset. She made clear last week that she thinks two episodes that have put FEMA on high alert are the Almighty’s mechanisms of conveying his disappointment with the current administration’s policies.

Had Kennedy ever stood before a rally and made a radical religious statement – or one that openly turned a blind eye to the religious impartiality that is meant to accompany a Commander in Chief – his campaign would have been over in a matter of hours. And still today (and into the next several months) if Barack Obama dares to use a term, or even makes use of “suspicious” body language, media outlets and demagogues on both sides of the political spectrum will call his actions into doubt, cast aspersions upon his allegiances, and openly question his fitness to lead.

Michelle Bachmann – in the company of other right-wing presidential contenders like Gov. Rick Perry of Texas – has created an illusion: Some of the necessary drawbacks of government, she presumes, can be solved by the infusion of religion. That principle enraptures and exhilarates her ever-growing base. Almost 80 percent of the country is Christian. Bachmann suggests that such a populace can unite under the banner of Christianity.

But Bachmann’s logic is flawed. No denomination of Christianity can boast more than 30 percent of the American population. Baptists approach around 26 percent and Catholics 23 percent. These denominations certainly don’t agree on everything, and typically clash on key issues – particularly those of social significance. While those who support her delight when she implies that there should be a divine hand in life on Pennsylvania Avenue, Christianity itself shouldn’t be a political force.

Often, the unique will and prerogative of the individual mixes with what should be populist civics. No politician comes to power without some preconceived notions or personal biases. People act in their self interest and seek to advance the causes that resonate with them. That’s just how the world works.

For that reason, it isn’t problematic that politicians have religious beliefs; it is the fervor with which those on the Right allow those beliefs to sway their political judgement that is troublesome.

Bachmann isn’t the first ambitious politician who has crossed the line in invoking religion. Our last President – a man of true faith – also exploited and abused publicly his relationship with the divine. “I am driven with a mission from God,” George W. Bush said in 2003, “God would tell me, ‘George, go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.’ And I did.”

Candidate after candidate on the Right – Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin (they keep emerging) – claim that President Obama defies the Founding Fathers’ intentions by offering a solution for people who don’t have access to affordable health insurance. These candidates, who continually call on God and religion to justify their opinion on public policy, forget Thomas Jefferson’s guidelines – which have been upheld time and again by the Supreme Court – “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions…thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” 

This same group of candidates and candidates-to-be are the driving force of several fabricated notions of conflict: war between Islam and the rest of the world; war between China and the American Dream; war between Obama and “family values.” What Michele Bachmann and her ilk fail to realize in the heat of hyperbole is that they are instigating another war altogether: the war between Church and State – and it is turning the main-stage of American politics into a circus.

Modern politics is shaped by a rapidly decreasing degree of religious impartiality. Forget  “joke” or “metaphor.” If John F. Kennedy had to prove that his religion would not conflict with his civic duty in 1960, Michele Bachmann has even more obligation to do so in our current political landscape.

Our contemporaries are the movers of the next generation. We will be voting for the first time in November 2012. We need each of the current crop of candidates to echo what President Kennedy told a cluster of cameras in 1960:

“Whatever issue may come before me as president…I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”

Common Interest – Finding Empathy in Greed

When we hear the whistle of a distant siren or a see a flash of red zoom through our periphery, each of us knows what to do. It doesn’t matter how long ago we were supposed to be at that meeting. It doesn’t matter how desperately we needed to make it through that light. In that critical moment – the moment in which someone is in dire need – we transcend our sectionalized society and create a cohesive, automotive exodus.

The siren makes us human. It momentarily levels the playing field. A billionaire in a Bentley is on the same mental wavelength as a low-income gardener in a beaten down pickup truck. Class is rendered obsolete, race becomes trivial, and when that emergency vehicle whirls by, something clicks in the American psyche: a shared interest in each others’ well being. If I were in that ambulance, or if my house was burning down, we think to ourselves, I’d sure as hell want traffic to come to a halt.

And that’s why I think Democrats are wrong about Republicans and Republicans don’t have their priorities straight.

We liberals hurl all sorts of vitriolic accusations at the GOP — they don’t care about the little people, we say. They’re only looking out for themselves. And, yes, it looks that way from the outside. But a dominant pillar that carries much of the modern Republican platform is an oft-skewed hodgepodge of “American values” — the things that make Americans American; the flavors in the melting pot.

What are the quintessential American values? Mitt Romney would tell you that competition — economic opportunity — tops the list. He’d cite the “American Dream” and the hope of attaining a better life than one’s parents, the potential to ascend the ranks and make something from nothing.

Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express might say that the traditional “family” supersedes all values. The “sanctity of marriage,” they would explain, that “eternal institution between a man and a woman.”

It’s important to note, of course, that some values are more deeply rooted in specific regions of the country. Proponents of conservative macrocosmic economic values might make more noise around Wall Street than in East Los Angeles. “Family” values would surely carry more weight in red-coated areas like Arkansas and Mississippi than they would in Massachusetts.

But in their heady convolution and “ethical” assertions, Republicans seemed to have lost their identity; they’ve misplaced that famous moral compass of theirs. And here’s why Republicans have some soul searching to do: they’ve forgotten a key value.

Empathy, the idea of associating with another’s hardship and coming to their aid — a value that is put to the test each and every day on the streets of cities and towns nationwide — is an American value. The New Deal was an empathetic institution. The Civil Rights Act was steeped in empathy. (And, for the record, the Bible — from which Republicans derive so many of their values — commands each family to give a tithe, a tenth of its income as a tax.) The unique aptitude of Americans to sympathize, to momentarily and hypothetically walk in someone else’s shoes, stems not from partisan debate, but purely from human instinct.

Perhaps Republicans have a of “tough-guy” complex of sorts; something compels them try to paint themselves as living a more distant and apathetic existence than they actually do. When humanity becomes a factor in the equation of values, life transcends the petty arguments.

Republicans believe in American values. Empathy is an American value. Therefore Republicans believe in empathy.

Republicans believe in empathy. It is empathetic to care for those who are in need, those who cannot afford to pay major taxes. It is empathetic to extend unemployment benefits to those who are unemployed during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. It is empathetic to give a portion of one’s own share to make sure that someone else can buy another loaf of bread, have another week to find a job, live another day.

When the road moves again and the piercing screech of the siren dwindles, we know that we are cared for. We know that we’re not alone. It’s a matter of putting two and two together.

Republicans are inherently empathetic. I just wish they knew that.