Ross Douthat: If Christie runs, he'll need to connect with middle class

commentBy ROSS DOUTHATNovember 11, 2013 

I know, governor, I know: It's still too early for presidential speculation, you're just focused on the job at hand and any talk of 2016, while flattering, is purely hypothetical.

But just in case you do have some faint, slight, extremely modest interest in parlaying your landslide re-election into a presidential bid, here are four 2016 "don'ts" to keep in mind:

DON'T BE JON HUNTSMAN. This sounds easy enough but obvious pitfalls are still worth pointing out. For the next two years, you're going to be hailed up and down the Acela Corridor as the Great Moderate Hope, the anti-tea party candidate, the Man Who Is Not Ted Cruz. But you can't actively embrace that part, or give off the impression -- as Huntsman did, obviously and fatally -- that you agree with the media that your party's full of rubes and cranks.

As a would-be nominee, you have to woo base voters, not run against them, and make them feel respected even when they disagree with you. This doesn't mean muzzling yourself, or pandering to every right-wing interest group. But it means persuading conservatives that you like them, that you understand them and that as president you're going to be (mostly) on their side.

DON'T BE RUDY GIULIANI. You probably think you wouldn't have Rudy's problems in a Republican primary. Yes, you're both combative Northeasterners from the party's moderate flank, but unlike the former mayor you aren't a social liberal with a public history of adultery (and a few drag performances thrown in).

But what felled Giuliani in 2008 weren't just "values" issues. It was the former mayor's apparent belief that being a national hero was a sufficient qualification to be president -- that he could just show up, be "Rudy," and the rest would take care of itself.

As another charismatic politician defined by your handling of a catastrophe, you're vulnerable to the same temptation: the belief that you, personally, are the solution to the Republican Party's many problems, and that you can just run on your own awesomeness without specifying where you would take the country if you won. That act wears thin in a long campaign, and it's likely to wear especially thin in a party that needs a new agenda as badly as Republicans do today. Which brings us to ...

DON'T ASSUME THAT WHAT WORKED IN JERSEY WILL WORK NATIONALLY. In state-of-the-party arguments, you and your fellow Republican governors love to contrast your successes with the national party's struggles. But those successes have been made possible by crucial differences between state-level issues and national ones.

In New Jersey, for example, you've been able to successfully isolate public-sector unions, portraying them as drains on middle-class tax dollars and enemies of the common good. But in national budget debates, the biggest issues are popular entitlement programs, not teacher salaries or bureaucrats' health benefits. And you probably aren't going to win the presidency wagging your finger at Social Security recipients, or painting the poor and elderly as dangerous special-interest groups. You need a different way to convince voters that you're on the middle class' side, and you won't find it unless you ...

DON'T ALWAYS LISTEN TO YOUR DONORS. As a standard-bearer for pragmatic, non-apocalyptic Republicanism who also hails from a state where lots of rich Wall Streeters sleep at night, you're going to be awash in money, and with it will come lots of unsolicited advice. Some will be good: The Republican donor class has a better handle on certain political realities than the tea party. But some will be terrible, because the right's donors are loath to acknowledge that their party's biggest problem isn't gay marriage or immigration or even the disastrous government shutdown. It's a brand identity, cemented by Mitt Romney's persona and "47 percent" remark, as the handmaiden of Big Business and the rich.

To alter that identity, you'll need substance as well as regular-guy style: a tax plan that doesn't play just as a giveaway to the 1 percent, a health care plan that isn't just a defense of the pre-Obamacare status quo, an approach to spending that targets corporate welfare as well as food stamps.

The good news is that you already have populist politicians like Utah's Sen. Mike Lee leading the charge into this territory, so you can follow without worrying too much about being attacked as a RINO sellout squish. The bad news is that you'll have a lot of big bundlers cornering you to explain that actually it's much more important to cut capital-gains taxes or preserve the carried-interest loophole for hedge funds, and why can't you move to the center on social issues and stick with upper-bracket tax cuts, because after all they worked in the Reagan era ...

Which they did -- in a completely different economic and political landscape. So if you want to have an era of your own, you'll need to nod politely, crush your well-heeled advice-giver with a handshake, and then take a different path.

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.

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