Chris Christie and His Special Special Election
Earlier today Bloomberg View columnists Ramesh Ponnuru and Margaret Carlson met online to chat about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and the upcoming special election. Below is a lightly edited transcript.
Ramesh: So what do you think of what Chris Christie did yesterday, Margaret? The New Jersey governor is going to appoint a short-term replacement for Senator Frank Lautenberg, who just died, and hold a special election in October. Some Republicans are fuming because they wanted Christie to hold the special election in November 2014 and give them an extra vote in the Senate until then. They say he’s putting himself before his party. I think it’s hard to fault him for giving the state’s voters a say earlier than that, especially since it’s not clear the state Supreme Court -- about which, don’t get me started -- would have allowed the delay. Holding the special election three weeks before the gubernatorial vote, on the other hand, does seem to be transparently about running up the score for his re-election. He doesn’t want Cory Booker, the Newark mayor who’s running for the Senate seat, to bring more Democrats to vote the same day he’s running. That may help him and Republican state legislative candidates, but it's hard to defend.
Margaret: Governor Chris Christie is paying $24 million to move the election three weeks before his own. That's $8 million a week, which is a year's worth of grants for college students and not for the good of the state but for the good of Christie. I'm a pushover for the Christie show. He reminds me of my father and his friends. I especially loved him when he said, "Get the hell off the beach," an obvious piece of advice that had to be shouted for crazy people to hear. But he can't use his signature phrases like "frankly, I don't care" (or "give a damn"), when he should give a damn. He won't spend money on early voting, after-school programs or charity care at hospitals, but he will spend it on a special election three weeks before his own so he doesn't have to share a ballot with Mayor Cory Booker? It hurts his brand to be so openly craven.
Ramesh: That's right, I think. Christie is fine when he can say he put his state before his party, as with his embrace of President Barack Obama during Hurricane Sandy, in the days before the 2012 election, or his fighting with Hill Republicans about Sandy relief. I think that sort of thing will help him get re-elected with a strong margin and then the fact that he got re-elected in such a blue state will help him in the 2016 primary race (not to mention the general election) more than the disappointments to the national party will hurt him. Holding the election in October rather than November can't be presented as a state-first move though. It was still very crafty of him, since it may well be that not many voters are going to care about the timing question.
Margaret: But he's doing it just to roll up a huge margin for his presidential resume and, as a second thought, protecting some down-ballot Republicans who would be hurt by a big turnout for Booker. It's crafty but selfish, with selfish overwhelming crafty. His next challenge is appointing a caretaker to the seat, not that it much matters to the general election. Getting appointed isn't the leg up you might think. It doesn't make you the incumbent. Nate Silver of the New York Times says that less than 40 percent of such appointees go on to win.
Ramesh: Not all of them even run! And the speculation is that Christie will appoint a "placeholder" who won't run. And even if a Republican wins in what will likely be a very low-turnout election in October -- Christie's timing decision helped the party out that way -- he or she will have a hard time keeping the seat in a state that has not elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972.
Margaret: A moderate placeholder at that! Prior to his own election, Christie will be the bluest Republican in the country. Once he wins, the Christie Show will become more interesting. I'm waiting breathlessly for the episode in which he breaks up with Obama, as he must. His usefulness is over. It was always a summer romance down by the sea, as that great Drifter song has it. Gradually, Christie will stop returning Obama's calls. He just won't be available for the photo-op, the long walk on the beach. He'll tell the president this is hurting me more than it's hurting you. All Obama will have left to remember him by, as Christie measures drapes for the Oval Office, is the stuffed animal from their stroll on the boardwalk.
Ramesh: Well the president knows how the game is played. He let Susan Rice take the fall over the administration's response to the Benghazi attacks. At the height of the furor she had to withdraw from the running for the secretary of state nomination. This morning she got a promotion: She's going to be national security adviser, a position that doesn't require Senate confirmation. Loyalty matters in politics, but it's not quite the same as loyalty everywhere else.
Margaret: Let me depart from my usual cynicism to praise two public servants, who put the emphasis on serving. Tom Donilon, who is leaving his post, did a lot of his necessary international travel on weekends, so he could be there for the 800 briefings he's given the president. With the hideous scenes of Internal Revenue agents frolicking on the taxpayer's dime they so ruthlessly collect (but note: I love most of those agents), we forget how much people give up in order to serve. As for Susan Rice, she took her knocks with grace and dignity. She had nothing to do with Benghazi. She had a lot of opportunities to strike back (anonymously), and if she did, I never saw it. She just kept doing her job. The president is lucky to have her.
Ramesh: She may have had nothing to do with Benghazi, Margaret, but she was willing to go on TV and tell a story about it -- it was all about a video -- that was both false and convenient to the administration. Yes indeed, the president is lucky to have her.
(Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru are Bloomberg View columnists.)