I remember thoroughly enjoying the last New Jersey gubernatorial debate. Chris Christie spent the full ninety minutes mercilessly tearing his Democratic challenger, a woman from the NJ senate named Buono, into small shreds, and then shuffling them around the stage with his feet like dead leaves.
It was obvious to me then that Christie was adept at this. I was a bit surprised, therefore, to see that he was one of the five candidates from Fox’s recent 10-man prime-time debate whose poll numbers declined in its aftermath. I guess I oughtn’t have expected as much from him as I did: Looking back on it, Buono should’ve lost the debate had Christie not even shown up, so devastatingly bad was her performance. Out of many great moments to choose from (a dazzling cavalcade of nonsense which included such gems as the suggestion that Hurricane Sandy might never have happened if Christie had only done more to prevent global warming) my absolute favorite was when the poor woman opened her response to a panelist’s question which had included the phrase “passive resistance” with these exact words:
“I like that. ‘Passive resistance.’ I’m going to coin that phrase.”
In the pageantry of our politics, Christie was the wolf and Buono was the lamb. And while the ability to trounce a mental defective may not qualify Christie to compete against the big boys, it might at least teach the establishment something. Considering the two Fox debates, what’s really striking isn’t Christie’s comparative weakness, but the much more abject unsuitability of the establishment-backed candidates. Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina (whose post-debate bounce was more aggressively spin-propelled than one of those rubber band and balsa wood airplanes) are sacrificial lambs in the mold of Mitt Romney.
Does the establishment just not know any better? They seemed to honestly think they had a winner in Mitt. Witness Karl Rove’s embarrassing 11th hour exit-poll alchemy during his election night appearance on (once again) Fox News. And yet Mitt was one of the worst possible choices the GOP could have sent against Obama. Surely they aren’t all fools.
A good friend to whom I put this question saw an underhanded tactic at work, writing to me that “they knew as well as any political strategists that knocking out an incumbent is an uphill battle, and Obama’s popularity was steady. Mitt ran in the last primaries and was knocked out. He clearly had a lot of unspent ambition and plenty of money to back it up. I think the base he was largely unpopular with wanted him out of the way. At least, some of the politico brains around the campfire did.”
And maybe he’s right. But I think he’s supposing the consultancy class to be cleverer than they really are. These are all things they could have considered, maybe even ought to have. But the world looks strange from inside the bubble. On the other hand let’s remember that in the Florida primary Mitt was reported to have out-spent the guy who took second place (Newt Gingrich) 56-to-1. So, if the establishment is actually as smart as we’re giving them credit for being, maybe they just read the tea leaves and literally sold Mitt their support.
Of course, that might not work to explain the kind of favoritism the media gave him. I doubt that Romney actually bought the support of big media. But the networks and cable news channels mostly take their cues from the magi inside the beltway (in the process providing us the absurd echo chamber effect that Rush Limbaugh and Jon Stewart have showcased) and in that case I think big media just fell in line behind them when once they’d declared Romney the candidate.
Fox took their cue from Ann Coulter, William Krystal, Rich Lowery, and other acceptably neoconservative rightists, while the other outlets assessed that as Romney was the guy most reviled by the far right he was the reasonable and respectable one, a view in which they were supported by their own pet conservatives (such as David Brooks of the New York Times.)
And of course, if some members of the establishment were functionally selling Romney their support, they needn’t have been most or even many, but just whatever minuscule number would’ve been sufficient to sway all of the rest. (Don’t underestimate the mental malleability of the beltway set. I vividly remember watching an amazing house oversight committee hearing whose topic was an EPA bureaucrat who defrauded the government of hundreds of thousands of dollars in unearned compensation via a ridiculously flimsy hoax whereby he convinced his superiors that he was an undercover CIA agent.)
Alright then, maybe the 2012 process is repeating itself. In one corner we’ve the simpering but anointed (Bush, Fiorina, Rubio) and in the other corner we’ve the clever but craven (in 2012 this was Newt, most archetypically it is Richard Nixon, and in this cycle it’s fellows like Christie and Mike Huckabee.) But as we all know there’s a wildcard this time around who’s throwing the usual dynamic off-kilter and keeping this from being another case of electoral deja-vu. Clearly he doesn’t fit the normal paradigm.
This isn’t an endorsement of Donald Trump, though I’ve read some interesting ones. But I do want you to ask yourself this: How is it that someone whose debate prep is so minimal that not only were none of his answers rehearsed but his closing statement was obviously winged, someone who seems indeed to just wing almost everything he says, someone whose brain-to-mouth hookup seems to be missing any sort of filter, someone with nothing approaching the political bona fides of a Bobby Jindal and nowhere close to the high-proof ideology of a Rand Paul still stomping them and everyone else in the polls? What does he have that those other candidates don’t?
While you’re thinking about that I want to share something else with you. The last time a World Series was held in Boston I listened to her former mayor Thomas Menino (may he rest in peace) give a speech / press conference through which he just mumbled semi-coherently the whole time. This was nothing unusual, in fact it was sort of a trademark of Mayor “Mumbles” Menino, but I was so tickled by it that I stopped whatever else I was doing to copy down some of the great mayor’s words.
Everything I wrote was meticulously transcribed. I played and replayed the audio. Trust me, even where it looks like I carelessly left out or transposed a word, I didn’t. What follow below are exact quotes. As you read them, I want you to remember that this was a man who, though often mocked, was universally beloved. A juggernaut of Boston politics.
“Today we are here to ask all Red Sox fans to ‘sponsible and respectful, while cheering on our team. ‘Simportant that these baseball games are safe and fun ‘speriences everyone everywhere.”
Reporter: Are you concerned about security?
Menino: No. I’m not secure at all. I’m not. I don’t think.
“This world series be great the city everyone by just act responsibly. That’s all ask I want. You know, and bar-owners of the establishment, please work by the rules.”
“This team really exemplifies the true spirit of Boston. They are full of personality. And heart. And beards.”
“I’m gonna be rootin’ hard to bring back the world serious cup to Boston.”