early and often

The Chris Christie X Factor: Frank Rich and Adam Moss on Our Game-Show Electoral Process

Adam: Hi, Frank. In anticipation of Chris Christie’s Big Decision, which could come as early as tomorrow, I thought we might want to talk a little about the nutso way we go about choosing our presidents. To review the bidding, in the last couple of weeks we’ve seen a wobbly debate performance hobble one recently anointed front-runner, Rick Perry. We’ve seen a straw poll consisting of a handful of pretend voters elevate a pizza magnate to serious, if certainly brief, consideration — just as that same process briefly elevated Michele Bachmann and torpedoed Tim Pawlenty several weeks ago. We have a political class that’s simply decided to ignore Rick Santorum, causing him to pitch a little fit last week, and in Mitt Romney we have a new front-runner who was also the old front-runner, waiting around to be humiliated yet again, this time by a governor who has insisted (to the point of threatening suicide to make himself clear) that he isn’t ready and doesn’t want the job now anyway, but who may be suckered into the race by the entreaties of Ken Langone, Henry Kissinger, and Roger Ailes. All months before a single real voter has cast a single vote. So I ask you: Is this any way to pick the future leader of the free world?

Frank: Hi, Adam. It is American Idol or perhaps The X Factor, with all the gravitas of a Simon Cowell production as brought to you by Rupert Murdoch. Yet, as you say, without the legitimizing participation of actual voters. It’s no way to pick a leader — but are we actually picking one? I wonder who’s engaged besides people like us, who trade in these narratives for a living, plus GOP activists and Fox News shut-ins. Not to say that some of these rotating sideshows aren’t fun. The one starring the Incredible Fat Man From New Jersey is particularly hilarious, since Christie is considerably to the left of his party on almost every issue, from guns to Islamophobia to immigration to climate change (as Dan Amira of Daily Intel was the first to point out), and has no national base or organization. His backers seem to like him because he is good at yelling at unions (especially teachers unions) and can string a tart sentence together. Also, he’s not Romney — always a big plus. Among the other sideshows, I particularly love Cain’s “9-9-9” rap — as performance art, if not policy. A Christie-Cain ticket would be endlessly entertaining and just possibly the biggest boon to pizza since the founding of the republic. But even so, for all the hoopla of the past few weeks, we’re still at Obama vs. Perry vs. Romney, I think, until voters actually weigh in — or Christie does.

A: And at least the hoopla keeps our mind off of anything that is actually at stake — at least for the moment. So what happens if Christie does get in — does he hurt Romney (because of their similar records ), Perry (because of their similar decibel levels), or is he stuck in the middle and thus dead in the water, another false Republican hope?

F: Not dead in the water at all. Polls taken this past week — a representative one was in The Economist on Friday — show a three-way tie among Republicans with Romney, Perry, and Christie all at 14 to 15 percent. It would be a fascinating donnybrook, particularly once Christie’s views become widely known. The biggest hit Perry has taken in the past couple of weeks among the GOP base, after all, had less to do with his debate stammering than with his (now more or less retracted) statement that those who oppose Texas’s modest immigration reforms are “heartless.” Wait until those same voters hear Christie’s far more liberal views on that subject (and the others). Given Christie’s support from Wall Street and Giuliani alumni — and from Murdoch, who has turned the New York Post into the Draft Chris Christie Post over the past week — his entry will be very bad news for Romney. Christie has already usurped poor Mitt in the hearts and minds (and pocketbooks) of the establishment, and if he enters, he’s likely to become the dominant center-right Northeastern GOP candidate — in a fight for the nomination with the tea-party-Christian right-hard-right favorite, who for now remains Perry, for all the talk of his “collapse.”

A: Is it possible that I almost feel sorry for Mitt Romney? Anyway, no matter who the characters, this is where we always end up — with a fight between the establishment and anti-establishment wings of the Republican party. That’s the battle that just seems to want to happen right now. In one of the annotations that ran alongside your last essay for the magazine, on the mythic hope of bipartisanship, the democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg said that there was still more to come — that the entrance of a third party candidate was inevitable. Where is the room for an independent candidate in this mix? What else do you imagine might happen before Iowa (or Florida or whoever ends up going first. We could end up having the first primary by Yom Kippur)?

F: The most vocal third party promoters — Tom Friedman at the Times, Matt Miller at the Washington Post, the No Labels supporters at MSNBC’s Morning Joe, etc. — all want a candidate with their own views, which are essentially those of a moderate Democrat almost identical to Obama. And who would that candidate be? A Bloomberg, if not Bloomberg himself (who surely is not so vain as to enlist in a suicide mission — or, now that I think about it, maybe he is). Whoever, whatever — any moderate third party candidate is great news for the GOP because he/she will take votes from Obama. As for Romney, I don’t have much sympathy because he has sold out all his principles — on choice, on gay civil rights, on health care — and seems to have no bedrock convictions about anything except perhaps the one thing he won’t talk about, his religion. As for what might happen in the three months before Iowa — not much, I suspect. Hard to imagine Palin getting in now (especially without Murdoch support). Or Huckabee (also being whispered about again). So it seems to be up to Christie now to spice up the narrative. Which seems increasingly unlikely. On Sunday’s This Week, George Will said he spoke to Nancy Reagan Saturday night and she completely denied the Times’ account of her urging Christie (or anyone) into the race.

A: Which kind of gets us back to where we started. We have the Republican establishment pining for the entrance of a candidate whose views are probably closest to Jon Huntsman, a candidate they’ve already rejected. Moderate Democrats are pining for a candidate with the same views as the man who is already president. What’s more the election is seen as a referendum on the economy — which, in the immediate term, is pretty immune to the powers of the president — and not at all about foreign policy, which the president has a great deal of sway over, and which has hardly been quiet the last three years. So what do you think we’re really doing here?

F: It is indeed all about the economy. Politically in 2012, the still inchoate (but spreading) anti–Wall Street protests and the announcement of new debit card fees from taxpayer bailed-out banks may ultimately prove more significant than the week’s drone demolitions of Awlaki & Co. The Christie bubble should thus be seen in perspective as another evanescent sideshow: It seems to me about very little except an attention-deficit-disordered political press’s (and GOP establishment’s) hunger for drama and a highly theatrical new protagonist. That’s why we keep hearing about Christie’s brash outspokenness, his unabashed Ralph Cramden–ness — that is, his profile as an American Idol contestant — rather than about what he’s done, what he thinks, or how he might actually win. In three months, actual voters will be heard from, and the real field for Republicans is likely to remain Romney vs. Perry. But it’s the economy that will be Obama’s true opponent, and it’s a mean bastard, getting meaner, it seems, by the day.

A: Thanks, Frank. Readers with questions can write askfrank@nymag.com. Until next time.

Related: John Heilemann on Chris Christie’s Moment [NYM]
Jonathan Chait: Chris Christie Is Fat. So What?
Dan Amira on Five Things Conservative Voters Would Hate About Chris Christie

The Chris Christie X Factor: Frank Rich and Adam Moss on Our Game-Show Electoral Process