November 11, 2013

Conventional wisdom is quickly coalescing around the idea that Chris Christie is the strongest GOP candidate for 2016. Just look at The Hill, where the first, second, and third items are all Christie. Like all such speculation for a heavily contingent event that is still almost three years hence, this should be taken with a grain of salt roughly the size and shape of a Cadillac Escalade, but if Christie does have a real shot, the reason is that, apart from Christie’s real success in winning over blue state voters in New Jersey, there are hardly any other plausible challengers for the race. (Jeb Bush?)

However, Christie may face the same challenge that has dogged the Republican Party since 2009: The GOP base’s fear and loathing of President Obama.

Christie is in a Tea Party bind. This country has elected Obama twice now. But the GOP base may well remain unremittingly hostile to Obama’s entire agenda and legacy. Republican primary voters may continue to insist on total repeal of Obamacare and possibly total resistance to the implementation immigration reform (which has a real shot at passing by 2016). If the GOP nominee is going to have a chance of winning the 2016 election, he or she may have to make peace with significant parts of Obama’s legacy. But can someone who does that win a GOP primary?

Indeed, the Tea Party is already rejecting Christie as insufficiently conservative, in part because his opposition to gay marriage (which Obama endorsed, as will the next Dem nominee) is not fervent enough, and in part because New Jersey expanded Medicaid, meaning partial accommodation with Obamacare. Jonathan Martin has a good piece on this in the Times:

“We’re so frustrated with all this Christie talk we can’t see straight,” said Mr. Hofstra, who is active in the Tea Party movement and lives in Vine Grove, Ky. He and his friends were especially furious when the governor, on television last week, described himself as “a conservative,” given his recent expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, among other positions. “He’s no more conservative than Harry Reid,” Mr. Hofstra said…

This is the real meat of the dispute:

…the underlying issue with the right wing appears to be trust: Many are skeptical that he is committed to advancing the conservative movement, much as they came to be about President George W. Bush.

Since Obama was first elected, the fuel that makes the Republican Party go has been opposition to anything and everything he does. The Heritage Foundation’s development of Obamacare, Medicare Part D, and Jim DeMint’s 2009 $3 trillion stimulus package have all been cast down the memory hole, and 19th century austerity for all occasions has filled the void, mostly for lack of anything else.

Occam’s Razor here is that the Tea Party brigades are angry at Christie for embracing Obama’s help during Hurricane Sandy, and for being received well by a few liberals and moderates. Here’s Martin:

The more the news media and the establishment cheer on Mr. Christie, the more grass-roots activists — especially members of the Tea Party — resent it. Mr. Christie appeared this weekend on four of the Sunday morning talk shows. Chuck Henderson, a Tea Party activist from Manhattan, Kan., nearly shouted into the phone when asked by a reporter about the idea of Mr. Christie as a presidential candidate.

The irony is that Christie’s major strength as a Republican who has won in a blue state is also his biggest weakness among the base. If one’s political movement is predicated on hatred of the president and his policies, anyone who gets liberal or moderate votes is automatically an ideological traitor. And this will hold for any plausible Republican candidate by definition.

Now, all this could change by the time 2016 staggers around. Jonathan Weisman has a good piece today on the civil war raging within the GOP, which is playing out in primaries against House Republican incumbents. But the “establishment wing” of the GOP seems intent on settling this in its favor as quickly as possible, which is to say that the Tea Party’s influence could be significantly diminished within a few years. However, one thing is for sure: If total opposition to Obama’s entire legacy remains a litmus test for the GOP presidential primary, the victor will have a very tough time in the 2016 general election.