Chris Christie has it partly right.
Christie, the outspoken governor of New Jersey, came to Vermont for a Republican fundraiser in Essex Junction Wednesday evening. The press was barred from the proceedings, which cost from $50 to $10,000 for admission. But someone was willing to carry a recording device inside the event for the Rutland Herald and Times Argus so reporter Peter Hirschfeld had access to the words of the popular governor.
According to Christie, what’s ailing the Republican Party is not its ideas or its “brand.” (“Brand” has supplanted “image” as the word used to describe, not the substance, but the surface. When people start talking about branding strategies or “rebranding,” it’s a sign that they are talking about imagery and rhetoric.) Rather, he said, what the party needs is good candidates. Without candidates who inspire trust, voters will never listen to a discussion about issues.
This argument has many advantages for Christie. The implication is that the reason he won re-election in New Jersey by a landslide is that he is such a super-duper, ultra-great candidate. It wasn’t the issues. It was honest, straight-talking Chris Christie himself. If Christie’s great advantage is that he is Christie, it is an advantage easily transferable to the presidential race in 2016. You can hear him now: “All that talk about immigration, taxes, women’s rights, health care — hey, forget about it. You can trust me because I’m me.”
He has a point. The importance of image, of how one appears on television, has never been greater. It has been so since cool John F. Kennedy debated sweaty Richard M. Nixon on television in 1960. Ronald Reagan’s easy-going charm also translated well on television.
During the last two elections, television has not lied. It showed John McCain to be out of his element in 2008. It showed Mitt Romney to be an unlikable, plastic man in 2012. It also revealed the intelligence and charm of their opponent, and as the world was crumbling in the fall of 2008 and struggling in 2012, intelligence was a highly desirable quality.
The Republicans have been plagued by a long roster of peculiar candidates, both in presidential primaries and in races for the Senate and House. The Senate candidates who rattled on about birth control and “legitimate rape” were not the kind of dynamic, trustworthy candidates Christie was talking about, and they damaged their party’s prospects in regaining the Senate.
But one of the reasons that many Republicans are not trustworthy is because of their position on issues. Polls show that a majority of Americans tend to favor the Democratic positions on a host of issues, such as immigration, health care, minimum wage, support for education, the environment. When Republican candidates deny climate change, denigrate women, disrespect immigrants and seek to cut programs such as food stamps, they make themselves unattractive candidates because of the retrograde position they have taken on the issues.
Neither Christie nor fellow Republicans can run away from the issues. Health-care reform is an issue because no one knows how well Obamacare will work. Discussing how best to provide health care to millions of Americans is important. Unfortunately for the attractiveness of Republican candidates, their party has tended to oppose meaningful progress. The Democrats, who are hitched to a faltering but promising program, at least have the advantage of trying something.
Christie will ultimately have to run on the issues. It helps him that people trust him. He made frequent mention of Vermont’s former Gov. Jim Douglas, another Republican who won the voters’ trust in a Democratic state. Douglas’s trustworthy personality helped him win over Vermonters on the issues, as Christie suggested. But Douglas managed also to catch a conservative tide in the state.
Christie advised fellow Republicans to go after Democratic constituencies, including racial minorities and women. It’s good advice that Republicans have had a hard time hearing because their policies tend to be offensive to minorities and women. It takes a big personality to overcome that sort of trust deficit.