Belmont Club

The Battle of the Brands

One of the ways to better evaluate Chris Christie’s current problems with a bridge scandal is by reading Jonathan Rauch’s underrated 2010 essay, The Tea Party Paradox. He helps answer the question: should Republicans care about Christie? Rauch notes polls unambiguously show that the US is getting more conservative, yet Democratic pundits point out this has not translated into more GOP votes.

Rauch argues that there is no contradiction. “Over the past decade or so, the country has grown more conservative but less Republican.”

Why? Pew’s eight-category breakdown of the public by both party and ideology suggests the answer. Independents’ market share has increased at the expense of the Republicans’. And, since about 2006, the leading growth category has been conservative independents. … According to Pew’s surveys, a solid majority of Republican-leaning independents, 55 percent, disapprove of the Republican Party’s leaders. …

For now, the saving grace for Republicans is this: if debranded Republicans are sour on Republican leaders, they are positively repelled by Democratic leaders.

The bad news, as Rauch points out, is this means the Republicans have evolved into a party based on ideology, whereas the Democrats are held together by payoffs. “In 2010, the Democratic Party is a coalition of liberals, conservatives, and moderates … The GOP, however, has become for all practical purposes a conservative party.” This makes for strange numbers. The Democrats can grow coalitions faster than the conservative numbers increase. The “Republicans’ problem is that core conservative constituencies … are shrinking as a share of the electorate. Core center-left constituencies — minorities, left-leaning women, professionals and socially liberal Millenial Generation voters — are growing.”

One of the reasons Christie has been so effective until now — whatever you may think of him — was that he knew how to pull the levers and deal across the fence. This level pulling ability has now proved to be his undoing. Christie’s greatest sin — to both Democrats and conservatives — is that he’s a Republican governor who dared to act in the Chicago Way.

And that’s as should be. If you act like an adherent of one party then maybe you should join it. The other way to pose the question to Republicans is whether “if you can’t beat them, join ’em'”

So the question can be put this way. Does  the future of Republicanism look like Chris Christie or Ted Cruz? A lot depends Rauch concludes, on how badly president Obama screws up. “Over the  next couple of years, Obama and congressional Democrats could help Republicans escape their dilemma by pulling to the left … far enough … to let the GOP build a winning coalition of libertarian independents, Republican partisans and disaffected moderates.”

Thus, if Obama is moderately competent, a guy like Christie will be needed to gather up enough to fill the Republican tent. But if Obama keeps his present ruinous course, a Cruz or Cruz-type leader may have a chance because the electorate will be driven to outrage.

But other possibilities besides the ones Rauch suggested seem possible. The most obvious other trajectory is if the Democratic coalition begins to fall apart once it can no longer maintain the payoffs.  A genuine economic crisis would dissolve the glue that holds the Democratic party together.

The other line of course is that the conservatives become the senior partners in a GOP coalition simply by remaining the only ones left standing. A sufficiently dysfunctional Obama administration could create a situation not unlike that found in Third World politics where the resistance becomes sainted not for its powers of governance but simply because it is the only force that retained its integrity in a political system corrupted by the Chicago Way. Say “no” long enough to the Landburger Gessler and eventually Rossini writes a symphony named after you.

Which brings us back to Governor Christie. Tammy Bruce theorizes that the Christie emails were a scandal being reserved by Democrats for later use, yet which were released now to grab the headlines away from the Robert Gates accusations. But if Rauch is to be believed some conservatives will gladly be rid of Christie and may even be grateful for the Democrats for expending their firepower on him, the better not to have him on the 2016 Republican ballot.  This may work if Obama keeps running pell-mell into the minefield of disaster.

In the end it may not be Christie with his bridge but Obama selling the voters a bridge that will decide the outcome.


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