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.

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.

Flake in Chief – Why Rick Perry’s “Executive Experience” is a Relative Term


As featured on the Huffington Post:

Questionable executions and Ponzi scheme conjectures aside, Rick Perry and his proponents have hammered one talking point a little harder than most others: the candidate’s executive experience.

Conservative advocacy group “One Term President” – attempting to draw a dubious parallel between the Texas governor and a party figure head – issued a statement last month when Perry kicked off his presidential campaign. “Rick Perry has more executive experience than any candidate since Ronald Reagan” wrote the group, echoing a popular message among the Right. “That sure is appealing compared to a president that had zero executive experience.”

They have a point. OTP and its allies argue, perhaps justifiably, that having run an organization, a business, or a government adds tremendously to the resume of a candidate for the country’s highest office. The sentiment is one that has been adopted by both sides of the aisle, depending on election year and incumbency. Just two months ago, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty – then a GOP candidate for president – had little trouble persuading a campaign crowd that “you can’t put somebody in the Oval Office who hasn’t had executive experience leading a large enterprise.” His attitude doesn’t differ much from the one liberal icon Bill Clinton adopted while running for president in 1992.

But the OTP crowd is missing one side of the equation. The assertion that eleven years of experience in office qualifies someone to be president likens to an assertion that if you’ve cooked eleven batches of brownies, they must have been delicious. “Leadership experience” rings hollow if the emphasis is on the latter word of the phrase. For a group, political or otherwise, to claim that Rick Perry’s eleven years as governor should hoist him above the political fray reflects profound vacuity.

As it happens, those brownies weren’t as good as they may have seemed. Just in the past few weeks, Perry has neglected the duties of his office for what he has deemed more important ventures. Most recently, he rolled the dice on life and death with cringe-worthy opportunism.

The governor, who has proudly authorized more executions than any state executive in modern history, was nowhere to be found Thursday evening when controversial inmate Duane Buck was scheduled to be put to death in Huntsville, Texas. Buck, a black man whose case involved sensitive racial and psychological issues, is the center one of the most disputed cases since the state’s establishment. His attorneys have fought for a stay on his execution in the weeks leading up to September 15, but legal precedent outlines that a ruling of that nature falls into the hands of either the state’s governor or the United States Supreme Court.

A strong, stolid leader – someone who has learned from his executive experience and has proven it efficacious by standing by his controversial record – should take the lead on a case like this. Perry, however, was absent from the rolling plains of his state Thursday. He had fled to a GOP fundraiser in Iowa, forcing the Supreme Court to stay Buck’s execution – the “big government” he so scorns, in the flesh – and intervene in a decision that should have been his.

Were the Buck case Perry’s only recent lapse in “executive leadership,” perhaps his cronies’ argument would remain sound. But the evidence mounts even higher.

Perry once served as his state’s Commissioner of Agriculture. His former department’s official mission is to “…partner with all Texans to make Texas the nation’s leader in agriculture, fortify (its) economy, (and) empower rural communities…”. As governor, he has made bold statements (albeit without much follow through) on environmental issues. Last week, however, he let his trademark opportunism impede once again upon the “executive leadership” he and his supporters contend makes him more qualified than anyone else to be president.

Perry, whose state has been ravaged by some of the most detrimental wildfires in years (the ferocity of which compelled President Obama to declare a state of emergency in the region) left Texas on September 7, the same day as Obama’s announcement. Did he go to a wedding? To a funeral? To an important budget meeting on Capitol Hill? No, he jetted to Simi Valley, California so that he could expound upon his unequaled executive experience in the Republican presidential debate.

The political infidelity continues. In the month that he has been campaigning for president, Perry has spent stump speech after stump speech emphasizing his commitment to job creation and economic growth, touting Texas’ record under his tenure. But in that same month of campaigning – the first weeks on the road, laying claim to job creation spurred by tax cuts and slashed spending – jobs in Texas have finally met reality and dropped sharply. The state has experienced layoffs in its transportation sector, its mining and logging sector, and – yes – even in its government. During the month of August, thirteen-hundred people in the Lone Star State lost their jobs.

Rick Perry’s “executive leadership” boils down to this: when he sees something he likes better, he visibly drops what he’s already committed to. What’s he going to do when he could be making more money as a Wall Street broker? Or when he realizes that he’d rather be on the golf course than at the State of the Union? Or when Social Security really does just become too much of a hassle for the executive branch? If Americans want a flaky chief executive, they can count on Rick Perry to bail out when the going gets tough. But when you’re the President of the United States, it’s a bit harder to flee to Iowa.

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?

Gingrich vs. the Media – The Battle He Can’t Win


It’s difficult to look back upon Sarah Palin’s unsuccessful vice presidential bid without calling to mind her relentless attacks on the “lame-stream media.” It seemed that every stump speech brought a new chapter of her vendetta against the press, with the attacks growing more exaggerated as November neared. In turn, the media cut her little slack, she plummeted in the polls, and the Republican ticket tanked.

You’d think that the fresh batch of GOP candidates would learn from such missteps. But over the course of the past few days, Newt Gingrich and his campaign have proven otherwise. First Gingrich’s spokesman, Rick Tyler, issued a statement—responding to what he called an anti-Gingrich media “onslaught”—saying that “the literati sent out their minions to do their bidding.” He went on to accuse journalists of firing flimsy attacks “without taking aim” and distorting the campaign’s message.

Alas, there was more. During an event in Iowa, Gingrich himself took up the mantle in the war on media. “It’s going to take a while for the news media to realize that you’re covering something that happens once or twice in a century,” he said of his candidacy. He called his campaign—and the ideas that it presents—something that will “take a while (to) sink in.”

The minds of the media, it seems, are too dull for the bright light of Gingrich’s genius.

Never mind that he made these statements while the cameras of a dozen major news outlets were pointed at him and rolling.

Candidates – Gingrich and his kin – grapple during every election cycle with the challenge of sending their voters a consistent and enticing message. Much is in their control: the clothes they wear, the statements they make, the places they go. But on the election battlefield, there is one external force that is neither obedient nor governable.

The media is simply a canvas, upon which and off of which is projected a candidate’s message. It can be influenced and it can be shifted – but, for the most part, it lives up to its name: it is a vehicle of whatever message is being voiced.

But for two reasons, the war on media is injurious for any candidate.

Firstly, constant media attacks are the most palpable and contemporary iterations of “biting the hand that feeds you.” When that slew of controllable campaign factors is either ignored or abused, the media is no longer a plain, suggestible canvas. Just like Palin, when Gingrich uses the media as a target, or turns it into a legislative scapegoat, problems plague his campaign. As Palin has relied more and more upon comments like these, coverage of her in that “lame-stream media” has transformed from sound reportage to a form of satirical mockery. Newt Gingrich is on that path.

Secondly – and more importantly – he’s attacking being educated, informed and inquisitive. To portray writers and reporters in a negative – even hostile – light is to undervalue and trivialize the importance of education and awareness. And to hastily slap scathing terms like “minions” onto the diligent and hardworking members of the mainstream media is to malign the work that makes this country’s voting populace a more informed and erudite group.

The media is what has kept us free. It is the force of transparency that allows us to maintain a functioning democracy. To attack the media is to attack a central pillar upon which our rights as citizens stand.

Every blow that Newt Gingrich deals to the media will become a blow to his campaign. Each insulting epithet he attaches a writer or reporter will become a permanent name-tag on his lapel. Every “lame-stream media”-esque reference will be seen as an attack on the Bill of Rights. Sound familiar, Newt? Ring any bells, Tea Party?

Sarah Palin harangued the media for months, then admitted that she couldn’t name a newspaper she reads. Newt Gingrich is walking a fine line.

For the sake of his campaign and for the benefit of the country, I implore Mr. Gingrich (and any opponents he may face) to eagerly engage in substantive debate and elude the fatal attraction to ceaseless attacks on the media. All campaigns – especially those for the most lofty office in the land – should be driven by ideas and ideals, not assaults on those who seek to inform decisions.

Report Card – A Brief Response to SOTU


Substance

He had a few different jobs to do from a few separate perspectives.

In the Eyes of the Left

He had to lay out his agenda in a definitive manner and avoid digressing from the party script. He had to concede little and give the Republicans much to mull over. He had to acknowledge the presence and potency of the new House majority, but suppress its voice to the best of his ability. He had to talk about guns — in light of Tucson — and talk about civility in light of the political climate. He had to promise to veto a healthcare repeal and vow to protect the middle class. He had to win over the “green” people, make education a priority, and address immigration reform. The list was endless. From the outset, the Democrats were not likely to be pleased.

From this perspective: B+

He covered most issues and did, in fact, present his agenda. Contrary to White House spin before the event, his speech was pretty partisan. It was sprinkled with a unifying tidbit here and there, which made it seem like somewhat “kumbaya”-esque. He neglected some key social issues (evidently for political purposes), but for the most part, his speech didn’t concede too much.

In the Eyes of the Right

Was there anything that the president could have said that would have pleased the right? Well, he could have said that he supports full gun-ownership rights and would be more than willing to sign a repeal of the healthcare bill. He could have said that taxes on the rich needed to be lower and that the issue of the declining quality of public education should take a backseat to more ‘important’ problems like regulation. He could have said that our two wars needed to be continually waged until every building in Baghdad and Khartoum is burned to the ground. In other words, to please the Republicans, he would have had to become a Republican.

From this perspective: D

He was partisan in one direction.

Appearance

I haven’t seen a whole lot of coverage of this element of the speech but I thought that the way the chamber looked during the speech was fascinating. For example, because the members were so intermingled, even when Obama spoke a line that only Democrats stood or applauded for, it looked as though the entire House chamber rose.

I also found a somewhat disheartening irony in the appearance of the House chamber. For the sake of unifying around a common cause, each member of Congress (among others working on the Hill) wore a white and blue-striped ribbon on his or her lapel. This was intended to honor the victims of the shooting in Tucson and keep Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — who was shot in the head — in Congress’ thoughts.

Here’s the irony: each Democrat wore the ribbon on his or her left, each Republican on his or her right. Nice job, Congress.

Implications

Ostensibly, the SOTU was a call for unity. If ever there was a place where the idea of unity and cohesion could take precedence over partisan gridlock and resistance to compromise, it would not be Capitol Hill. And Barack Obama knows that, which is why he sugar-coated his speech with a bipartisan flare. But the agenda that he set out in his speech covered left-wing talking points. The vitriolic mood is going nowhere.

An Electorate on Edge – The Role of Patience in the Healthcare Debate


I drove to a coffee shop earlier today in an attempt to seclude myself from the minute-to-minute shuffle that accompanies the process of moving houses (that my family is currently wrapped up in). I had pages and pages of history notes to sift through — so I just needed a place where I could clear my head and forge forward.

A few minutes after I’d sat down at a table and started looking though my notes, I realized that I’d forgotten to retrieve one last bit of information on the North’s Civil War strategy. So I opened up my laptop, dragged my cursor down to the blue ‘Safari’ icon, and waited as the tiny clock-like pinwheel on the URL bar twirled and twirled.

But I quickly became impatient and within seconds found myself wearing out my index finger by tapping incessantly on my keyboard’s ‘enter’ key. I couldn’t stand the seven-second wait for my browser to load. I needed immediate gratification at the risk of my own sanity.

And then I had one of those ‘a-ha’ moments (the ones that used to be depicted in old Tom and Jerry reruns when a giant lightbulb would appear above a character’s head): I realized that my agitation wasn’t an isolated incident. I’m a junior in high school, so it’s no secret that patience isn’t my forte; but neither is it that of the American populace. We’re an electorate on edge, a country whose thirst for instantaneous indulgence usurps any bit of willingness to roll with the punches when the going gets tough.

Last week, the House — sporting its fresh coat of red – voted to repeal the landmark healthcare bill that promised to to insure over thirty-two million additional people, end health insurance companies’ implementation of lifetime coverage limits, forbid discrimination against patients with pre-existing conditions, and — in essence — overhaul the broken healthcare system and its tired regulations.

Healthcare was (as most issues in this presidency are) a highly partisan battle. It further polarized Washington. It created enemies out of friends. But, of course, one side won, and the bill’s policies began to take effect in the weeks and months after its passage. The White House website says that all of the aforementioned policies among “other changes including new benefits, protections and cost savings will be implemented between now and 2014.”

Hold on a second. So does that mean we have to wait?

And now America’s fuse is lit and Congress’ spiral of reverse gratitude is already spinning. Republicans have long been tapping their feet and anxiously looking at their watches; and as soon as they got into power, they pounced.

Michele Bachmann wants to “repeal [the] president and put a president in the position of the White House who will repeal this bill.” Despite the gravity of that demand and — in my opinion — its breach of both civil and human rights, Bachmann represents a growing mass who expect something from nothing. It’s the same portion of the population who expected the economy to be “fixed” within months of Obama’s election and are “shocked” to find out that he’s done “nothing” to repair the economy.

Things take time. Long-run investments are what sustain economies. If the United States (or even my family, for that matter) only made short-term economic choices and divested from every stock or venture that didn’t immediately yield a massive positive result, it would be in a much downgraded position. When healthcare hasn’t finished coming into effect and Republicans already decide that it hasn’t quite done the trick, that’s an irresponsible decision.

Patience.