Here’s some free political advice to all you Republicans angling to be president. Quit quoting Ronald Reagan, and start acting like him. And that goes for you, Rand Paul, and you too, Chris Christie.
Before you put some skin in this presidential game, you might want to first get some thicker skin. Think “thicker” and “Gipper” and…make it quicker. Because you’re not only clearly running out of patience, you’re running out of time. You’re both great at dishing it out, but I’m really beginning to wonder whether you can take it.
What’s got me waxing politically poetic, is behavior I’ve seen by these and other politicians that just looks pathetic. They’re all smart guys, unusually politically astute guys. But cross them once, go off-script with them once, pose one different question or surprise confrontation just once – and they go nuts, and I mean really nuts. It’s actually disturbing.
For years, that blunt, in-your-face style suited New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie just fine. He didn’t take any guff, and he was more than happy to return the guff. It was refreshing, to a point. Until it got overbearing, and just seemed pointless.
Take Christie’s handling of what on the surface, seems like a relatively mundane local political matter – his treatment of New York State’s Republican candidate for governor.
It’s obvious Robert Astorino’s got a huge up-hill battle against Gov. Andrew Cuomo – he trails him by as much as 37 points in some polls. But did Christie make things even worse by not only refusing to help the guy, but adding insult to injury, and mocking the guy? "I will spend time in places where we have a chance to win ... we don't invest in lost causes," Christie said of Astorino.
Ouch! And not only because Christie’s a fellow Republican. As head of the Republican National Governors Association, he plays a key role in dispensing monies to worthy candidates. He decided, or maybe the association collectively decided, that Astorino wasn’t worth the investment.
That’s fine. Here’s what got former New York Republican Gov. George Pataki ticked off -- Christie wouldn’t leave it there. The New Jersey governor wasn’t only dismissing Astorino, he was dissing him. Lost cause? Really?
Pataki immediately cried foul, claiming Christie had no such compunction backing New Hampshire Republican longshot Walt Havenstein, at the time down 26 points in the polls to Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan. When reporters later questioned Christie on the matter, he cut them off, saying he was done talking about Astorino.
"I don't have the juice to take a 37-point race and make it competitive," Christie said, according to NJ.com. "You know who does? The candidate."
The irony is that a scandal now engulfing the Cuomo administration is seriously dinging the incumbent’s approval numbers (even if they have as yet to improve Astorino’s). Pataki argues Christie needlessly painted himself and the RGA into a no-win corner.
"I understand saving your resources and saying we're going to target the states where the races seem the closest," Pataki told me. “What I don't understand is in July, writing off a race. Because things can change in three weeks.”
But with Christie, it’s a safe bet things won’t change. As political historian Larry Sabato put it, “that’s his style.”
Maybe so, but for someone who might be eying the White House, it doesn’t seem to show much style, or class for that matter. What if Cuomo tumbles in the polls? It happened to his father, and the beneficiary the year it did was none other than the guy creating the stink over all this now … George Pataki.
Still, Christie clearly feels he has more to gain than lose, continuing to get into critics’ faces. It just seems odd for a guy who prides himself for his tough skin after months of relentless media pounding over a bridge scandal, is still so intent burning bridges with guys on his own side. And not quietly – loudly – and I think, needlessly, and stupidly.
Ditto Rand Paul, who’s gone from a thoughtful cutting-edge Libertarian, to oftentimes prickly, on-the-edge a lunatic. Forget about not being able to take the heat, Paul's the one cooking it up in his own kitchen!
It’s one thing for the Kentucky senator to turn an appearance on MSNBC into a predictable foil for going after its unfair treatment of Republicans, but it’s quite another to go after anyone and everyone who dare questions his consistency as a Republican.
In one interview Paul erupts at a questioner who asks whether he’s been consistent on supporting Israel (he hasn't). Then he argues he didn't dodge a so-called Birther immigration critic at an Iowa event (he did). Then he later explains he had no time for a “Kamikaze interview.”
Paul might be right in some of these instances, but the instances are piling up. It's a pattern of behavior that reveals a politician who can't behave, and can't handle so often flying off the handle. Because it's one thing for a politician to not suffer those he deems fools gladly; it's quite another when he makes a fool out of himself when doing so. Forget letting it flow like water off his back, lately Paul seems always on the attack.
That wouldn’t make the senator the first politician to go for the jugular, but it would make him among the first to go for his own jugular! Because for a guy to who quotes Ronald Reagan often, there’s something key he’s missing every time he does it.
Both Paul and Christie feed a narrative that they can’t take the heat in their very own kitchen. And since each has gone after the other in prior interviews and media appearances, they violate Reagan’s most sacred commandment as well – “Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of Any Republican.”
That doesn’t mean now, as it didn’t then, that Republicans aren’t entitled to zing one another, or anyone else – Reagan himself demonstrated that in a 1980 New Hampshire Republican candidates debate, when he ripped the forum’s sponsor by ripping the microphone right out of his hands, famously bellowing, “I’m paying for this microphone!”
That was then. Not exactly quite like that now. Today, candidates of all stripes happily wear their tempers on their sleeves. The President has practically carried this to a new, albeit calmer art form. While “No-Drama Obama” might not get in his critics’ faces, he will happily take every slight to heart, and trot every criticism to his presidential pulpit. How many times has he gone after Fox News, or just this past week, critical CEOs in a remarkably paranoid exchange with The Economist?
Looking back at Reagan, it was remarkable how he seemed to laugh off his critics. I don’t know whether he just stewed inside, and never let ‘em see it on the outside, but if he was bothered by any of it, damn if I could see it. So too Sabato, who explained that Reagan, much like John Kennedy, preferred focusing on the issues that mattered and not the petty grievances that did not. That doesn't mean neither President didn't chafe at the side shows around them; they just refused to be side-tracked by them.
Let's face it, Reagan and Kennedy didn’t get to the White House not knowing their enemies, perhaps they just preferred not giving into their enemies, or their enemies’ criticism.
Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote much the same about Abraham Lincoln. He developed a “team of rivals,” who not much earlier were more like a team of rip-roaring non-stop critics – many of whom were blistering, and deeply biting in their rebukes. Maye Lincoln figured he was better having them inside his tent than shooting at him from outside that tent. No matter, point taken – no slight taken. Or, should I say, no appearance of slight taken.
Again, there's nothing wrong with politicians speaking their mind, but not at the risk of sounding mindless, and thoughtless, and feckless, and...clueless. Don’t keep “telling” us how tough you are. For God’s sake, act like it. Because for guys who pride themselves on how tough they are, they sure have a tough time proving it.
Chris Christie and Rand Paul have a lot going for themselves. They’re political originals in almost all respects, save their uncanny lack of self-awareness. It just seems odd for gentlemen who demand respect, they have a devil of a time “showing” respect. Their rage is as consuming as it risks being self-immolating. No slight is too small, no diss too dizzy, no criticism too silly, that each doesn’t get silly, and childish, and boorish in kind. Not kind. Not right. Not big. Not…presidential.
The problem with so many candidates today is they forgot what made the great ones the historic figures they are today. They didn’t become big, thinking small – Then how is it these thin-skinned, prickly pale imitations think being so small will ever make them big?