Jonathan Martin has an interesting and revealing piece in The New York Times on Thursday about the different stances that the potential Republican nominees have taken on the budget and debt ceiling standoffs. Although Martin merely reports the different strategies of Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, and Rand Paul, the piece provides further evidence of something that is quickly becoming apparent: Christie is a much shrewder politician than Rubio.
The basic challenge for the contenders is to avoid pissing off their base while not tying themselves too tightly to the madness in Washington. This is obviously a taller order for Rubio, who is in the Senate, but he is not rising to the challenge. Here is Martin:
Eager to regain favor with conservatives as he considers running for president, Mr. Rubio has fully embraced Mr. Cruz’s effort to block financing for the new health care law, standing with him at news conferences and through procedural maneuvers to that led to the shutdown.Even more tellingly, on the evening of Sept. 24, Mr. Rubio made sure to join Mr. Cruz for his marathon speech against the health care law...“I want to thank the senator for his efforts here today, and in the weeks that have led us here,” Mr. Rubio said as Mr. Cruz gladly yielded the floor. At 6 the next morning, Mr. Rubio returned to the Senate floor and rejoined Mr. Cruz.
Part of the problem, which Martin alludes to, is that Rubio fell out favor with conservatives by backing an immigration bill similar to the one supported by The White House. The sheer miscalculation of this effort, which I tried to detail in a couple of previous posts, has now narrowed his wiggling room. (In short: backing immigration reform was tone-deaf politically because if the bill succeeds, he will be identified with Obama; if it fails, he will have pissed off the right for no discernible benefit). The problem is now that Rubio seems politically motivated and without any clear center. He ping-pongs from one position to the next, never getting them quite right. Hugging Cruz is not only going to make him look silly to some voters, but it also appears desperate. The people who love Cruz will probably have the chance to vote for him. And remember, even Mitt Romney won the nomination. The Ted Cruzes of the world never do.
Christie, however, seems to have found a much clearer and more astute (if intellectually dishonest) stance. Reports Martin:
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is seizing on the moment to distance himself from Republicans in Washington and its dysfunction. The governor, who is up for re-election next month, fires off near daily Twitter posts about his bipartisan achievements in his home state with the anti-Washington hashtag of #DearDC.
His aides sent reporters a link to a video in which he announces, “I hope in Washington what they figure out is that what we pay them to do when we send them down there is to run the government, not to shut it down.”
The beauty of this position is that it appeals to moderates, separates Christie from Washington, and doesn't do anything to needlessly piss off the right wing.
Christie is generally considered to be a good politician, but also an impulsive one: he yells, he is testy, he is hyperbolic. He probably didn't need to tie himself to Obama so closely during Hurricane Sandy*, but at least he has been able to make his lurches seem like part of a coherent narrative: that of the straight-talking politician who does what it takes. Rubio seems like an unsure and insincere creature of Washington.
*Correction: I previously wrote Hurricane Katrina