Frank Rich on the National Circus: Cuccinelli’s Near-Win Says More Than Christie’s Landslide

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Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Christie's 2016 prospects, Rand Paul's Jonah Lehrer problem, McAuliffe's underwhelming victory, and De Blasio's first challenges.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie won a landslide reelection yesterday, significantly outperforming the national Republican Party among black, Hispanic, and female voters. Christie has been viewed as too moderate to win a Republican presidential primary, but he's popular, pragmatic, and has lots of momentum. Is he the 2016 GOP front-runner?

 There is no front-runner for 2016. But the excessive valuation given by the GOP Establishment to Christie’s New Jersey landslide (against an underfinanced and pallid Democratic sacrificial lamb who was no Cory Booker) is a fascinating window into the power of denial. That Establishment is desperate to believe that the tea party is dying, that the radicals in the House cannot pull another stunt like a government shutdown, and that a restoration of centrist Republicanism is at hand. And so if you tune in to the unofficial headquarters of the Christie ’16 campaign, Morning Joe at MSNBC, Christie is not only the front-runner, he’s his party’s savior, and is within a step of two of measuring the drapes for the White House. Christie is also the great white hope of Wall Street barons, of the foreign-policy neocons, and of mainstream conservative pundits. How many of the latter have written columns recently about “what the right can learn from Chris Christie”? I lost count after Peggy Noonan, Ramesh Ponnuru, and Jennifer Rubin. The point seems to be that a gregarious Republican presidential candidate can win over blue America by putting a happy face on conservative ideology and showing up to help poor people when a natural disaster hits. In other words, though no one will say this out loud, Christie is viewed by Republican grandees as a panacea in the way George W. Bush once was — a “compassionate conservative” with crossover appeal — albeit with a touch of the bullying once admired in another blue-state Republican boosted for president by much the same crowd: Rudy Giuliani.

The only problem with this scenario is that we are not in 2000 or 2004 anymore. Today’s GOP wouldn’t nominate a Bush unless it was done in a back room by the party’s financial benefactors and the entire primary process was junked. That’s not happening. Back in the real world, Christie is manifestly unacceptable to his own party’s base: He’s for immigration reform (a stance that has already turned the GOP base against Marco Rubio, a supposed 2016 front-runner only a few months ago); he has championed gun control; and he threw in the towel on his previous opposition to gay marriage. Good luck with that in any GOP primary state outside the Acela corridor. And we’re not even factoring in the vetting issues uncovered by the Romney campaign, as reported by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin in Double Down, among them potential financial improprieties and associations with both a mysterious female aide and Bernard Madoff.  Even yesterday’s New Jersey exit polls show that, the landslide notwithstanding, only 51 percent of Christie’s home-state voters think he will make a good president, only 39 percent have a favorable view of the GOP (Christie avoided the Republican brand like the toxin it is in his campaign), and that he would lose in a presidential face-off against Hillary Clinton. The notion of Christie as the GOP front-runner for 2016 is mainly a happy fantasy for those who simply don’t want to believe that the Republican party’s base is as radical, as uncompromising, and as determined as it has been ever since Obama entered the White House. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Christie's ideological sparring partner, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, has found himself at the center of a growing plagiarism scandal that began, bizarrely, with the discovery that he had copied from the Wikipedia entry on the sci-fi movie Gattaca. In September, you wrote about Paul's meteoric rise to become perhaps his party's brightest hope. Has his meteor now flamed out?

Not at all. Let’s not forget that the real race for the GOP nomination in 2016, as things stand now, is between Rand Paul and Ted Cruz; it’s not Paul or Cruz vs. Christie. And while Paul has made an utter fool of himself with this plagiarism scandal — blaming it on “haters” in the press, for instance — it is no more likely to end his national political career than plagiarism ended the career of Joe Biden. Indeed, by 2016, no one will remember it, and even if they do, Paulites will view it, as he does, as a partisan plot by liberal elitists. But as with other Paul screw-ups thus far – he has also had to part ways with an unreconstructed racist who turned up on his staff — this is an indicator that for all his natural political skills, he’s playing with an amateur team. That said, I still would give him the edge over Cruz in their race to the top of the party because Paul was smart enough to stay clear of front-and-center association with the shutdown and, unlike Cruz, has even been courting GOP donors in Christie’s supposedly sewn-up Northeast.

Former DNC chief and longtime Clintonista Terry McAuliffe squeaked out a victory in the Virginia's governor's race. McAuliffe is widely viewed as a slick, somewhat unscrupulous operator and was running against an arch-conservative who had been dogged by scandal. What should we make of his narrow win in a state that has twice voted for Barack Obama? And does it say anything about the chances of a Clinton restoration in 2016? 

This is a much more revealing election than New Jersey’s. Polls before Election Day showed McAuliffe with a lead nearing double digits, and in the case of a Washington Post survey, with a 24 percentage point lead among women. But in the end, he won by less than 3 percent, won women by 9 percent, and might have lost had a Libertarian third-party candidate not won 7 percent of the vote. The Republican whom McAuliffe barely beat, Ken Cuccinelli, was no Chris Christie. Cuccinelli is a true tea-party guy, and way to the right on social issues. He’s in favor of a “personhood” law that would outlaw some forms of contraception, and he is not just opposed to same-sex marriage but is an out-and-out homophobe. That he could come this close to winning in a swing state that twice went for Obama – and do so despite being vastly outspent and being tarred with the shutdown’s impact on Northern Virginia government workers – is a huge political talking point for a GOP base that believes the party’s future is a Paul or Cruz, not a Christie or Jeb Bush. As for this election’s impact on Hillary Clinton, I never saw it as a proxy for her supposed presidential run, despite McAuliffe’s strong association with both Clintons. Still, it is somewhat embarrassing that the Clintons’ strenuous campaign efforts for their pal had so little apparent positive effect.

As was widely expected, New York Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has been elected the city's next mayor. De Blasio will come into office with a resounding victory, a lot of good will, and some skepticism about his ability to withstand the pressures of interest groups. What will be his toughest early test?

De Blasio takes office against a contradictory backdrop. There is much about the New York City left to him by Bloomberg that New Yorkers like — and yet, as the Times put it this morning, they see in De Blasio a voice that speaks to our “disillusionment with a new gilded age.” To thread that needle as a leader — making good on his “tale of two cities” campaign while preserving the pieces of the Bloomberg legacy that are attractive — will be a real challenge. Of course his toughest early test will be Albany. His second toughest will be placating his liberal base when, inevitably, he disappoints them with the compromises sure to come.