Beware the undertow on the Jersey Shore

Governor Chris Christie's cosy relationship with Obama could turn and bite him in the Primaries.

The Jersey Shore is a very important place for the people of New Jersey. This is where they come to play, to let their hair down. Many, maybe most New Jerseyans, even those who live on the other end of the state, have some sort of fond memories of the place; a beach house rented with friends after graduating high school, maybe; a day-trip to the beach or a waterfront funfair as a kid on a sunny day. This is why, when Hurricane Sandy punished the Shore late last year, it had such a psychological effect. If they could have fought the storm bare-fisted, New Jerseyans would do it. “It's a New Jersey thing,” they'd say.

This week, President Obama visited the Shore to see how it was doing post-Sandy; and while he was there he took the opportunity to hang out with New Jersey's larger-than-life Republican governor Chris Christie. It was quite the love-in. Christie, who before Sandy had been a fairly partisan critic of the administration, has been admirably unafraid to praise Obama's handling of the storm relief. Similarly, Christie's handling of Hurricane Sandy won him support among many moderates – and from the President – for his brash, no-nonsense approach. Famously, his abandonment of Presidential campaigning in general – and Romney by implication – on Fox and Friends which went viral after appearing on The Daily Show soon after the storm. But his cosy relationship with Obama, while it allows him to bask in Presidential stardust, may soon make things difficult for the ambitious governor.

There is no denying that Christie is a big character, brash and straight-talking and New Jersey through-and-through, very popular in his home state and well-known nationwide. New Jersey is a blue – Democrat – state, and, as the New York Times' Nate Silver observes, drifting leftward by the day; Obama won there last year by a margin of nearly 20 percent. But Christie's personal approval rating there is 69 per cent; an NBC News/Marist poll earlier this month projected him to win re-election against Democrat challenger Barbara Buono 60 per cent to 28 in November.

As things stand, along with Florida Senator Marco Rubio – protégée of Jeb Bush – Christie probably represents the greatest threat to the Democrats come the 2016 Presidential election. He is portrayed nationally as a moderate – and certainly is one next to Rubio, even though he has shown evidence in the past of being further to the right on issues like abortion and gay marriage than many seem to believe.

But as much as it looks good in times of storms and endears him to swing voters – and is even (god forbid in politics) the right way for a leader to behave – his bipartisan cosying-up to the President is a risky game for him to play. If he truly has his eye on the White House, Christie will soon face the unenviable task of having to sell himself to the Republican base in the primaries as a prospective Presidential pretender.

Primary elections, the elections within the party to choose the candidate, give an extraordinary amount of power to small, arbitrary places, meaningful often for reasons of historical oddity, like Iowa, for example, whose caucuses are obsessed-over purely because they get to go first and set the tone. In a lot of cases, the local GOP parties are dominated by hard-right Tea Party activists, which meant in the last election that some really strange candidates get their chance to shape the message.

The Republican primaries, like the Daily Mail's message boards, are where the nutters live. They are what really killed Mitt Romney's chances in 2012. A moderate at heart, a defecit hawk but not a bible-thumper, Romney had to tack so far and so suddenly to the right to fend off candidates like Michelle Bachmann and Herman Cain on issues like abortion and immigration that by the time he got through to the convention all his policy positions were shot to hell – even before Obama had started campaigning. It is in these primaries that things are going to get tough for Christie, who was facing criticism from the hard-line Fox News Republicans for what they see as disloyalty even before he bromantically gifted Obama a teddy-bear in front of the nation's media on the New Jersey boardwalk.

The manoeuvrings for 2016 have already begun. That's what the Benghazi scandal is really: the first scrapings-together by the right of potential ammunition to use against Hilary Clinton if she runs. Are the Democrats are trying to tempt one of their most dangerous potential opponents with a political honeytrap? Maybe not intentionally, but even if it's an accident, that's effectively what's happening. Today's photo-op will give Christie's opponents plenty of ammunition. The GOP is the party, remember, which fielded candidates in the last primary who were still loudly demanding to see Obama's birth certificate, who believed that “the secular-socialist machine presents as great a threat to Amerca as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union”, who appear to think that Obama is a satanist plot.

They, and those whose support feeds them, are who "Christie for President" will be dealing with when primary season rolls around. Grinning pictures with Obama, high-fiving by the seaside? That's not a winning look to those guys.

Obama and Christie at their joint press conference on the Jersey Shore. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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The Randian Republican who could rein in Trump isn’t a coward – he’s much worse

Paul Ryan's refusal to condemn Trump is not caused by terror or fear; rather, it is a cynical, self-serving tactic.

Poor ol’ Paul Ryan. For a few brief hours on 27 January, a week after the inauguration of Donald Trump, the Wikipedia entry for “invertebrates” – which defines them as “animals that neither possess nor develop a vertebral column (commonly known as a backbone or spine)” – was amended to include a smiling picture of the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives.

The online prank reflected a growing consensus among critics of Ryan: confronted by a boorish and authoritarian president plagued by multiple conflicts of interest, the House Speaker has behaved in a craven and spineless manner. Ryan, goes the conventional wisdom, is a coward.

Yet as is so often the case, the conventional wisdom is wrong. Ryan’s deafening silence over Trump’s egregious excesses has little to do with pusillanimity. It’s much worse than that. The House Speaker is not a coward; he is a shameless opportunist. His refusal to condemn Trump is not caused by terror or fear; rather, it is a cynical, self-serving tactic.

Long before Trump arrived on the scene with his wacky “birther” conspiracies, Ryan was the undisputed star of the GOP; the earnest, number-crunching wunderkind of the right. He was elected to Congress in 1998, aged 28; by 2011, he was head of the House budget committee; by 2012, he was Mitt Romney’s running mate; by 2015, he was Speaker of the House – and third in line for the presidency – at the grand old age of 45.

The Wisconsin congressman has been hailed in the conservative media as the “man with a plan”, the “intellectual leader of the Republican Party”, the “conscience” of the GOP. Yet, again and again, in recent years, he has been singularly unsuccessful in enacting his legislative agenda.

And what kind of agenda might that be? Why, an Ayn Rand-inspired agenda, of course. You know Rand, right? The hero of modern-day libertarians, self-described “radical for capitalism” and author of the dystopian novel Atlas Shrugged. As one of her acolytes wrote to her: “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your condition which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.”

Ryan is an ideologue who insists on giving copies of Atlas Shrugged to interns in his congressional office. In 2005 he told a gathering of Rand fans, called the Atlas Society, that “the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand”.

Rolling back the evil state while balancing the budget on the backs of the feckless poor, in true Randian fashion, has always been Ryan’s primary goal. Even Newt Gingrich, who served as Republican House Speaker for five years in the 1990s, once decried Ryan’s proposals to privatise Medicare ­– the popular federal health insurance programme that covers people over the age of 65 – as “right-wing social engineering”.

These days, Ryan has a useful idiot in the White House to help him pull off the right-wing social engineering that he couldn’t pull off on his own. Trump, who doesn’t do detail or policy, is content, perhaps even keen, to outsource his domestic agenda to the policy wonk from Wisconsin.

The Speaker has made his deal with the devil: a reckless and racist demagogue, possibly in cahoots with Russia, can trample over the law, erode US democratic norms and embarrass the country, and the party, at home and abroad. And in return? Ryan gets top-rate tax cuts. To hell with the constitution.

Trump, lest we forget, ran as an insurgent against the Republican establishment during the primaries, loudly breaking with hard-right GOP orthodoxy on issues such as infrastructure spending (Trump promised more), health-care reform (Trump promised coverage for all) and Medicaid (Trump promised no cuts). It was all a charade, a con. And Ryan knew it. The Speaker may have been slow to endorse Trump but when he did so, last June, he made it clear that “on the issues that make up our agenda, we have more common ground than disagreement”.

A year later, Ryan has been vindicated: free trade deals aside, Trump is governing as a pretty conventional, hard-right conservative. Consider the first important budget proposal from the Trump administration, published on 23 May. For Ryan, it’s a Randian dream come true: $800bn slashed from Medicaid, which provides health care to low-income Americans, plus swingeing cuts to Snap (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme, aka food stamps), Chip (the Children’s Health Insurance Programme) and SSDI (disability insurance).

In Trump, Ryan and his fellow anti-government hardliners in Congress have found the perfect frontman to enact their reverse-Robin Hood economic agenda: a self-declared, rhetorical champion of white, working-class voters whose actual Ryan-esque policies – on tax cuts, health care, Wall Street regulation and the rest – bolster only the billionaire class at their expense.

Don’t be distracted by all the scandals: the president has been busy using his tiny hands to sign a wide array of bills, executive orders and judicial appointments that have warmed the cold hearts of the Republican hard right.

Impeachment, therefore, remains a liberal fantasy – despite everything we’re discovering about Russia, Michael Flynn, James Comey and the rest. Does anyone seriously expect this Republican-dominated House of Representatives to bring articles of impeachment against Trump? With Paul Ryan in charge of it? Don’t. Be. Silly.

Mehdi Hasan is a broadcaster and New Statesman contributing editor. He is based in Washington, DC

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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