Daniel Larison

Christie and Egomania

Steve Kornacki warns against underestimating Christie’s chances, but points out the main risk Christie is taking if he runs:

The obvious temptation is to say that Christie would be making a gigantic and potentially career-killing mistake in doing so. After all, he’s not even halfway through his term; if he runs off to seek the White House now, it will arouse cries of home state abandonment — and if he comes back from a losing national campaign with his tail between his legs, it would be difficult, maybe even impossible, for him to win a second term as governor in 2013. In other words, a presidential campaign is probably an all-or-nothing gamble for Christie.

It is tempting to say this, and I have said something very much like it before. Once a governor has secured re-election, he has the opportunity to start thinking about pursuing higher office, and he doesn’t risk as much by launching a presidential bid. One reason there are so few first-term governors nominated by major parties in the last century is that they rarely make the attempt and the parties hardly ever reward them when they do. It would be highly unusual for Christie to seek his party’s nomination, and it would be even more unusual for the GOP to nominate him. If he tried and did not win the nomination, it could sabotage his tenure in New Jersey and derail his future political career.

Something that keeps bothering me about the recent presidential boomlets is the claim that the politicians being drafted owe it to the country to seek the Presidency, and that if they refuse the call they are somehow being too selfish and insufficiently devoted to the public good. As I have said before, candidates for this office are highly ambitious people who are seeking enormous power and prestige, and there is nothing that is particularly selfless about the pursuit of such an office. Christie gave an answer at the Reagan Library the other day that suggests he believes the opposite:

I mean, the fact of the matter is that anybody who has an ego large enough to say, Oh, please. Please, please stop asking me to be the leader of the free world! If you can please just stop! I mean, what kind of crazy egomaniac would you have to be to say please stop?

There is nothing egomaniacal about refusing demands to launch a presidential campaign. It wasn’t egomaniacal for Christie to say earlier in the year that he wasn’t ready to be President. That was modesty. Egomaniacs are the ones who believe they are not only qualified for this office, but that they are also far and away better qualified for it than any of the other available candidates. The people calling on Christie to run have been stroking and massaging his ego in the hopes that he is just egomaniacal enough to give it a try.

Update: Christie will reportedly not make any decisions this weekend, but will keep dragging things out into next week.

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Christie As the Giuliani of 2012

This Politico story on the obstacles facing a possible Christie campaign contained this unintentionally hilarious line:

The governor has aides with presidential experience — both his communications director Maria Comella and top political adviser Mike DuHaime were on Rudy Giuliani’s campaign [bold mine-DL] — and there are consultants in the wings who are available to step in and handle media, polling and mail.

With any luck, Christie could go on to enjoy as much success in the primaries as Giuliani did. The reply to that is that Christie’s advisers have the advantage of having gone through one absurd disaster of a campaign to know how to avoid making the same mistakes, but it certainly doesn’t bode well. Someone might also object that Giuliani’s ambitions for higher office were ridiculous, and he was clearly unqualified to run for national office, but that just underscores the similarities between the two. Except for the last 20 months, Christie has been a prosecutor and a mostly unsuccessful local politician with brief stints as a corporate lobbyist and a fundraiser for George W. Bush. Were it not for enormous amounts of flattering coverage, Christie would not be regarded as a national figure or plausible presidential candidate, and very much like the Giuliani buzz the enthusiasm for a Christie bid is one shared mainly by party elites and it something almost completely driven by the media.

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Why Christie?

There are new reports that Christie really is reconsidering his decision to stay out of the 2012 race. Some new polls this week have been asking whether Christie should run, and the results are a good indicator of how little popular interest there is in his entry into the race. Rasmussen asked the question, and found that just 20% say yes. 37% say no, and that includes 25% of Republicans and 34% of independents. Even more Republicans are unsure (43%) whether he should run, which hardly sounds like encouragement from the voters. Conservatives are split over a Christie run (29% no, 27% yes), and many more moderates (34%) are opposed than in favor (17%). Roughly one-third of Republicans nationwide favor a Christie run, which is something, but that doesn’t mean that Christie would have that much support in the primaries. According to the new SurveyUSA Florida poll, Republican voters in that state are much more emphatic in their opposition to a Christie run: 51% say that he shouldn’t enter the race, and just 25% want him to jump in.

Whatever Christie finally decides over the weekend, the effort to drag him into the race is another instance of a more significant problem that the GOP has in promoting its rising political leaders too quickly. For whatever reason, party leaders seem unwilling to wait and let their new talents gain experience and build up significant records before pushing them into the national spotlight when they are usually not ready. Christie has far less governing experience than four of the declared candidates and arguably less managerial experience than five of them, and he has had little to say about foreign policy despite the fact that half of his recent speech was on that subject. Once we get past the superficial tough-guy theatrics, why exactly is anyone clamoring for Christie?

Rich Lowry noted that Christie would “have a steep learning curve on foreign policy, where his Reagan address was weak.” Consider Christie’s confidence in the wonder-working powers of democracy:

For example, a Middle East that is largely democratic and at peace will be a Middle East that accepts Israel, rejects terrorism, and is a dependable source of energy.

If I didn’t know when Christie said this, I would have assumed that it was some of the silly, ideologically-inspired rhetoric that we heard so often eight and nine years ago. To the extent that governments in the region become more accountable to their people, all indications over the last decade are that those governments will be much more critical of Israel than the governments that preceded them. A democratic government might or might not reject terrorism. It depends on the terrorism in question. Once a democratic government is established in a certain country, there would presumably be an alternative to political violence at home, but that doesn’t mean that the government would not be willing to support terrorists in other countries. If there were some advantage in lending support to insurgents in a neighboring country, there is nothing inherent about democratically-elected governments that makes them hostile to terrorism. Democratization is no guarantee of securing a reliable energy supply. Indeed, more democratic governments might drive harder bargains with oil companies to satisfy newly empowered constituencies and to appeal to local nationalist sentiments. Christie spoke about all of this as if there are no trade-offs and no choices to be made between competing priorities. We really have to stop pretending that democratization reinforces all other current U.S. policy goals. The real weakness of Christie’s foreign policy remarks is that he has clearly not thought these things through, and he is doing little more than reciting lines that he thinks will be acceptable to a Republican audience.

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Romney and Health Care (II)

Jim Antle says that Massachusetts health care is still a problem for Romney:

Nevertheless, it seems to have hardened into conventional wisdom that health care is a non-problem for Romney. This is based on little more than Rick Perry’s dip and Romney’s recovery in the polls. Health care may not keep Romney from winning the nomination. Immigration, opposition to the Bush tax cuts, and numerous other sins didn’t sink John McCain in 2008. But the main reason Romney’s early frontrunner status has been jeopardized by a revolving door of conservative challengers, some of whom were virtually unknown on a national level before running against Romney, ought to be a sign that Mitt has problems.

I’m not sure that anyone has argued that it is a “non-problem.” Many conservatives and others took it for granted early in the year that Romney’s health care record was obviously fatal to his candidacy, and that was clearly not correct. Some people may be making an over-correction in arguing that it isn’t going to hurt him at all, but I haven’t seen it. I maintain that it is a liability, but it is not significant enough to deprive him of the nomination. The key reason for this is that he supports repealing federal health care legislation. Back in May, I likened Romney’s support for repeal to Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war. What I meant by that was that all that will matter to most primary voters focused on this issue is that he is against the administration policy they reject, and they will not be terribly bothered by the inconsistency or compromised nature of Romney’s opposition. Obama wasn’t reliably opposed to military interventions, but he opposed the one in Iraq, and that was good enough. Romney isn’t reliably opposed to technocratic domestic policies, but he is opposed to this one, and I suspect that will be good enough for enough Republican voters that he can win them over with his economic revival theme. I also doubt that very many voters otherwise willing to support Romney are going to throw up their hands in disgust at the mention of a state-level individual mandate.

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There Is Almost No Time Left For a New Candidate

Walter Shapiro argues that there is still a chance for new Republican presidential contenders to enter, but he acknowledges that there isn’t that much time left:

Make no mistake, some deadlines matter in presidential politics like the precise dates for getting on primary ballots. Although the entire GOP primary calendar is in flux, the best guess is that the deadline for filing for the Florida primary will be Halloween, with other early states like New Hampshire following soon after. While Henry Cabot Lodge did win the 1964 New Hampshire GOP primary on a write-in vote, resorting to that pencil-based strategy would be a daunting price for, say, Christie to pay for his indecisiveness.

The filing deadlines are one of the most important barriers to someone entering the race this late. Besides Florida and New Hampshire, South Carolina and Michigan’s deadlines are on November 1 and 15 respectively, and New Hampshire’s filing deadline may be moved earlier to accommodate an earlier primary date. There might still be enough time to meet those deadlines, but that assumes that new campaigns know what they’re doing. Even Perry’s campaign had a lot of catching up to do when he entered the race in August, and learning all the requirements is a time-consuming process:

Though the campaign of Texas Gov. Rick Perry is making gains in the polls in just its second week of operation, it is scrambling to catch up with its longer-running rivals on matters of ballot access. “There are 56 different states and territories, and all 56 have completely different rules,” said Ryan Price, who handled delegates and ballot access for John McCain’s 2008 primary campaign. “Even when you take away the deadline aspect, just to do all that research could take weeks, if not months.”

Even assuming that a new campaign could meet all of the requirements for ballot access in the early primary states, the primaries are becoming almost as front-loaded as they were four years ago. Thanks to Florida’s early date, the caucuses are probably a little over two months away, and New Hampshire will be in mid-January. Time is against any new candidates. It is likely that anyone jumping in at this stage will miss filing deadlines or will have so little time to campaign and raise funds that he will never be seriously competitive.

Update: The Wall Street Journal reports that there may be even less time before Iowa and New Hampshire:

In the wake of the announcement, New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner said his state could hold its first-in-the-nation primary before the end of the year in order to uphold tradition [bold mine-DL].

That would put the first nominating contest—the Iowa caucuses—in mid- to late-December because the state schedules the caucuses eight days ahead of the New Hampshire primary. Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn issued a statement Friday to say they will name the date once New Hampshire schedules its primary.

Second Update: The N.H. Secretary of State has moved the filing deadline to October 28.

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Threats and Interests

Reid Smith has drawn up the first part of a list of top security threats to the U.S. I suppose we should be relieved that Russia comes in no higher than tenth, but Smith makes a curious statement in the middle of his description:

Regional conflagrations in South Ossetia and Abkhazia threaten NATO member states.

Which NATO member states? How could conflicts over the separatist republics possibly threaten any member states in NATO? Put another way, which NATO members were threatened during the war in 2008? The answer would appear to be none. What has changed in the three years since then that makes these disputes more likely to threaten NATO members? If anything, NATO members’ security is less threatened by renewed conflict in the Caucasus than it was three years ago when Georgia was still being taken far too seriously as a prospective member. Indeed, one of the contributing factors leading to the escalation of hostilities in 2008 was the misleading impression that the U.S. and NATO would come to Georgia’s defense in a crisis, which was created by the Western willingness to entertain Georgian aspirations for alliance membership. It’s just one sentence in Smith’s post, but it is so thoroughly wrong that it merited some comment.

Smith also says that “the threat of military intervention in Ukraine and direct conflict in Georgia looms,” and it’s worth pointing out that neither of these things is true. One could imagine how the first could happen if Ukraine were ruled by an openly anti-Russian, hostile government, but it isn’t ruled by such a government, and it is not likely going to be in the future. Georgia can’t afford another direct conflict, and Russia has no need to start one. So these things don’t loom. One of them is extremely unlikely, and the other is hard to imagine at present. I would also point out that neither of these scenarios has anything to do with threats to “American territorial security, national sovereignty and interests abroad,” which is what the list is supposed to include. Smith refers to the current state of affairs as a “Cold Peace,” and yet U.S.-Russian relations have scarcely been better during the last two decades. “Cold peace” is what we had in the previous decade, and the differences between then and now ought to be obvious.

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Romney’s Crazy Plan to Prove That “We’re Not Crazy”

Ben Armbruster noticed part of a Mitt Romney radio interview in which he argues that the U.S. should “carefully reconsider” and possibly downgrade relationships with numerous other states if they vote for Palestinian statehood at the U.N. At one point, Romney says:

I think that people who vote against us in significant ways have to understand that there are consequenses of that and we will see them in a different light and our support for the Palestinian people will be adjusted if they continue to pursue this desire to have a separate vote and to be established as having a quasi-state status within the U.N. This is something which will end our support in foreign aid to the Palestinian effort. It will at the same time reshape our policy with regards to nations that oppose us [bold mine-DL]. People have to recognize that we’re nice but we’re not crazy.

This is a good example of what I was describing earlier in the week. Obama has made it clear that the U.S. will veto the Palestinian application for statehood, and the U.S. has been actively lobbying current members of the Security Council in the hope that the veto will not become necessary. In all likelihood, recognition will receive the necessary nine votes to pass, so the U.S. will have to exercise its veto, but there is absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind that the U.S. will do this. Since Obama has already taken the official “pro-Israel” position, there would seem to be no way for Romney to attack the administration for being insufficiently supportive, and there is nothing right now that Obama is doing on Israel and Palestine to which Romney objects. How does Romney demonstrate that his “pro-Israel” position is even more hard-line and unreasonable than this? He threatens to wreck numerous other international relationships for the sake of “punishing” states that vote the other way. How this proves to the rest of the world that “we’re not crazy” is unclear.

Would Romney really be willing to undermine or sabotage good relations with as many as a dozen other countries over this one issue? He seems to be saying that he would also “reconsider” relations with states that voted for recognition in the General Assembly, which as Armbruster notes would require Washington to “reconsider” its relations with most other states on the planet. I have my doubts that Romney would do this if it were up to him, but the worrying thing is that he is willing to take a position this far out because he thinks this is what some people in the party expect him to say.

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Charisma Isn’t Enough

Ross isn’t buying my argument in this post referring to Christie and Huntsman:

But if Larison can’t think of any reason why Republican primary voters might prefer Christie to Huntsman, then I would submit that he needs to spend a little more time in front of the television (or on YouTube) and familiarize himself with their respective public personae.

I am familiar with the differences. Christie cultivates and seems to revel in a combative style, and Huntsman has a diplomatic one. Huntsman goes out of his way to distance himself from the majority of Republicans, and Christie basks in their overwrought adulation. Even if I don’t quite get the hero-worship that goes along with it, I can understand why many Republicans are interested in Christie. Most of them don’t know much about him, except the outtakes from Christie’s public appearances that his team circulates and the glowing coverage from conservative media that he receives. It’s also worth noting that many of them do not know anything about him. If he were running, it would not be hard for competing campaigns to drive up his negatives quickly and easily.

He isn’t going to run, but if he did his ideological flaws and underwhelming debate performances would dog him just as they have dogged Perry. There really would be no reason to expect him to win a lot of support, much less become the default rallying-point for dissatisfied voters. Christie occupies more or less the same political space as Romney inside the GOP, and he is actually well to the left of Romney c. 2011 on at least a couple of issues. There just isn’t much room in the field for a challenge to Romney by a candidate with an overall more moderate profile than Romney. Charisma is important, but it isn’t magic.

My point wasn’t that primary voters can’t or won’t overlook candidates’ ideological differences. When talking about Romney’s chances, I have acknowledged that many primary voters aren’t demanding ideological purity. This is one reason why the elites’ search to find someone to replace Romney (which is what the Christie boomlet represents) seems so odd. If someone felt compelled to search for an alternative to Romney and Perry, there would be no need to look outside the current field. It is strange that some party elites are desperately clamoring for a last-minute Christie bid when Huntsman was already available to be turned into the acceptable alternative. I won’t discount the importance of a candidate’s visceral appeal, but I would point out that the things that conservatives may find viscerally appealing in politicians also tend to be the things that make them politically toxic to many others.

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Putin and the “Reset”

There have been many reactions to the news that Putin will return as president next year, and most of them have not been very interesting, but Tony Blankley‘s stands out for making the least sense:

Mr. Obama’s personally implemented, failed Medvedev-centric Russian policy has turned Mr. Putin – a George W. Bush friend – into a personal enemy and a lost strategic asset. Only a new American president can start repairing that vital Russian link in our China-containment policy.

It is fairly original to criticize the “reset” for its role in jeopardizing U.S.-Russian relations. Of course, had administration officials never criticized Putin, they would be accused of “cozying up” to him. After almost three years of trying to derail the “reset” at every turn and another decade of supporting policies that drove the relationship into a ditch, administration critics are suddenly very concerned that relations with Russia might be adversely affected by something.

Medvedev was always politically the weaker partner of the tandem, but it’s not clear how the administration was supposed to pursue the “reset” except to engage with the person currently serving as president. It’s true that the administration has sometimes made some weaker arguments that ratifying New START and supporting the “reset” would help Medvedev and disadvantage Putin, which was an unpersuasive way to mobilize some Americans’ dislike for Putin into support for more conciliatory policies, but the opponents of the “reset” (including Blankley) wanted no part of these policies no matter which Russian had the title of president.

If the “reset” has seemed “Medvedev-centric,” that’s because he was in office when the “reset” policy began, but it doesn’t follow that Putin has any interest in returning to a more antagonistic relationship. Policy differences between Medvedev and Putin have been exaggerated all along. One thing that could throw a wrench in the works is a new administration in Washington that believes it has to sabotage the relationship for political reasons. It is a fairly common habit of a newly-elected President in our country to repudiate certain foreign policy decisions of the previous administration to distinguish himself from it or to placate his party, and none of the likely Republican nominees has had anything good to say about the “reset.” If a Republican is elected next year, the odds are that U.S.-Russian relations will begin to sour, because the new administration will likely be intent on doing things to weaken those relations.

To call Putin a “friend” of Bush is grossly misleading, and it creates the impression that U.S.-Russian relations were better during Putin’s last term than they will be in his next one. Whatever personal rapport the two may have had at one point, Bush-era policies toward Russia and its neighbors were perceived in Moscow as a series of provocations, and the two “friends” presided over the worst state of relations between our two governments since the end of the Cold War. In fact, Putin was initially quite cooperative with the Bush administration, and in return he watched as the U.S. withdrew from the ABM Treaty, NATO was expanded into the Baltics, U.S. bases were set up throughout Central Asia, other ex-Soviet states were being put on a path to future NATO membership, the U.S. and our allies recognized Kosovo, and American officials berated Russia over its internal affairs. There is a real danger of making the same mistake that many Americans made during Putin’s earlier tenure, which was to make U.S.-Russian relations a matter of personalities that might be worsened or fixed when the head of state changes. Just as Medvedev did not herald any large or meaningful changes in Russian foreign policy, Putin’s return to office need not lead to any change in the improved relations that the U.S. and Russia have been building. As I wrote a while back:

The more we acknowledge that Russian policy is dictated by Russian perception of their national interests, rather than by the preferences of a particular leader, the better chance we have of recognizing where our interests are shared and where we can accommodate their objections.

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“Earned” Exceptionalism

Steve Benen doesn’t understand why Christie’s reference to “earned” American exceptionalism hasn’t provoked outrage among Republican hawks (via Andrew):

To hear Christie tell it, American exceptionalism is hollow — indeed, it may not even exist — unless the nation, to his satisfaction, has “demonstrated” and “earned” it. I’m fairly certain this isn’t close to what the right has in mind.

Put it this way: what do you suppose the reaction would be if President Obama declared that the United States still has to “earn” American exceptionalism. I suspect the right would be apoplectic; his Republican rivals would speak of nothing else, and the White House would never hear the end of it.

If Obama said something similar, Republicans very well might be apoplectic, but then many of them have spent the better part of two years throwing a fit over remarks Obama made during a visit to Europe two years ago in which he explicitly endorsed American exceptionalism. Critics have latched on to the first part of his answer on this, and then deliberately ignored everything that followed it. That suggests that there is nothing that Obama could say in connection with American exceptionalism that would not be misconstrued or turned into meaning the opposite of what he intended to say.

Turning to Christie’s speech, we see that he didn’t say quite what Benen thinks he said. He said this:

A lot is being said in this election season about American exceptionalism. Implicit in such statements is that we are different and, yes, better, in the sense that our democracy, our economy and our people have delivered. But for American exceptionalism to truly deliver hope and a sterling example to the rest of the world [bold mine-DL], it must be demonstrated, not just asserted. If it is demonstrated, it will be seen and appreciated and ultimately emulated by others. They will then be more likely to follow our example and our lead.

This is comparable to what Andrew Ferguson wrote last year:

Thanks to the ingenuity, persistence, and sacrifice of earlier generations, our obligation now is to conserve the arrangements that make us exceptional, reaffirm them, and prepare to pass them on, with an abiding faith in personal liberty. And this much should be obvious: If Americans don’t believe “we’re the greatest country ever,” we won’t be for much longer.

Both Christie and Ferguson take for granted that America has been and must continue to be exceptional and better, they acknowledge the possibility that Americans can fail to maintain or preserve this status in the future, and hold out the prospect that ours might cease to be “the greatest country ever” if we do the wrong things. No one is more anxious about declining power than a hegemonist. If American exceptionalism is defined in terms of global power and preeminence, as hegemonists have tended to define it recently, there is always the chance that America can cease to be exceptional, which is why they are so hostile to anything that hints at reducing the U.S. role in the world or trimming the military budget.

Christie’s entire speech is a warning that current leadership is jeopardizing exceptional status, which he then claims will have various undesirable consequences around the world. It is not quite as annoying as Paul Ryan’s speech to the Hamilton Society a few months ago, partly because Christie steers clear of offering any specific comments on history or international affairs, but in its overall message it is very similar. In short, Christie doesn’t face condemnation for “heresy” because he hasn’t really contradicted the Republican hawkish line on American exceptionalism. He is saying that current leadership (including Republicans in Congress) has been undermining U.S. leadership in the world, and for the most part that is something that Republican hawks have been arguing for quite a while.

He isn’t advocating for undiluted neoconservative foreign policy the way that Ryan and Rubio do, but he also hasn’t gone as far as Daniels or Huntsman in questioning the value of certain aspects of the U.S. role overseas. For example, Christie shows no sign of wanting to reduce, trim, or even reform the military budget:

The United States must be prepared to act. We must be prepared to lead. This takes resources—resources for defense, for intelligence, for homeland security, for diplomacy. The United States will only be able to sustain a leadership position around the world if the resources are there—but the necessary resources will only be there if the foundations of the American economy are healthy. So our economic health is a national security issue as well.

While it is true that he made some remarks about not using coercion to force principles on others, most Republican hawks are not going to be unduly offended by this because they believe that the U.S. doesn’t do this. Christie also says that we need “to limit ourselves overseas to what is in our national interest,” which sounds promising, but Christie doesn’t lay out what that entails. Depending on how expansive Christie’s definition of national interest is, he might be endorsing an extremely ambitious foreign policy or a cautious and modest one. Regardless, even this limitation is something that will only last as long as it takes to “rebuild the foundations of American power here at home.” These are “foundations that need to be rebuilt in part so that we can sustain a leadership role in the world for decades to come,” which means that Christie sees any reduction in the U.S. role abroad to be nothing more than a brief pause before the U.S. resumes a hegemonic role later on. Unlike Daniels, he isn’t entertaining ideas of cutting Pentagon funding for the sake of fiscal sanity, and he says nothing that would lead us to believe that he thinks there are any overseas deployments and commitments the U.S. should give up.

Like Pawlenty, Ryan, and Rubio, he even sets up the ridiculous isolationist strawman, but doesn’t use the word:

The argument for getting our own house in order is not an argument for turning our back on the world.

So we see that Christie accepts the hegemonist argument that the only two choices are global leadership (apparently forever) and “turning our back on the world.”

Update (9/29): The Wall Street Journal approves of Christie’s interpretation.

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