Every election cycle can be considered, first and foremost, a monument to hype. With every passing week, the political world is a blizzard of brash predictions, bold pronouncements, and bad advice. This year, your Speculatroners shall attempt to decode and defang this world with a regular dispatch that we're calling "This Week In Coulda Shoulda Maybe." We hope this helps, but as always, we make no guarantees!
As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was still settling into his swivel chair at this week's Conservative Political Action Conference, his interlocutor for the Q&A session, conservative talk-radio host Laura Ingraham, began by asking about his "rough couple of months ... in the media."
"They just want to kill ya," Christie said, "but I'm still standing." Christie was, at the time, referring semi-explicitly to The New York Times. "I don't subscribe, by the way," Christie said, to a smattering of applause. Moments later, he had another quip for the Grey Lady. "I went to my parish priest and said I’m giving up The New York Times for Lent,” Christie joked. “Bad news: He said you have to give up something you’ll actually miss.”
Pro tip for anyone who wants to demonstrate that the media isn't living rent-free in your head: Maybe just pick one funny story about how you gave up reading The New York Times.
But Ingraham couldn't have been more right about Christie's recent woes. In the last two weeks especially, it seems as if the political press has decided en masse to start spading the graveyard soil over Christie's once-lush aspirations for higher office. There is varying enthusiasm for the duty.
NBC News' Perry Bacon has discussed the "growing skepticism from influential Republicans about his likely presidential run." Politico's "caucus" of Iowa insiders couldn't find a place for Christie in their deliberations. FiveThirtyEight's Harry Enten, after examining the ratio of name recognition and net favorability among the potential GOP candidates, offered up this 16-word coffin nail: "Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, is well known, but not particularly well liked."
A charitable Peter Grier, writing for the Christian Science Monitor, suggests that Christie merely "peaked too soon," and reckons that the bad news is coming in heaps because the fix was in:
Do you think it’s a coincidence that The Washington Post and The New York Times and Politico all had stories running down Christie’s chances within days of one another? If so, we’ve got an exclusive deal to sell you a section of the Garden State Parkway.
"Christie can still come back," insists Grier. Tell that to The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin, who says all that's left of Christie is to take "lessons" from his "collapse."
Perhaps the most telling description of Christie in this avalanche of bad news comes from The Daily Beast's Olivia Nuzzi, who typically noses out tri-state train wrecks with a sommelier's skill. Nuzzi catches Christie at a D.C. hotel, tending over an audience of soused New Jersey politicos who had just made their way to the nation's capital aboard the "Walk To Washington's" booze train: "Things are less existential at the Marriott," she writes, "where a disengaged Christie is walking to the podium. He is thinner, but looks tired. His marsupial face sags around his pronounced nose, making him take on an almost Nixonian quality."
Onstage with Ingraham, Christie sought to recapture some of his former brio. Presented with despairing poll numbers by Ingraham, Christie summoned some steel: “Is the election next week?” (To which Hot Air's Noah Rothman responded: "If that sounds a lot like 'the only poll that matters is the one taken on Election Day,' e.g. the universal declaration of a losing candidacy, it does to me as well.")
Indeed, it is not. And yet, this week, there's the knowledge that some opportunities have been lost. Christie took a swipe at Jeb Bush on the CPAC stage, quipping, "If the elites in Washington who make back room deals decide who the next president is going to be, then he's definitely going to be the frontrunner." Maybe so, but the uncomfortable truth is that Jeb has, by now, won over many of the elites that Christie was used to hosting in back rooms of his own. As has Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
And that story -- the one in which Christie's decline is twinned with Walker's rise -- has deep roots. Back in February, Politico's Anna Palmer described "Republican strategists" as being of the opinion that "no one [was] in a better position to get a boost from the Christie Bridgegate scandal than Walker." But even as Bridgegate failed to become the albatross that so many Christie critics promised, Walker kept on shining in comparatively favorable light. Flash-forward to Feb. 26, and you find The Fiscal Times' Liz Peek training her eyes far from Fort Lee. "Unfortunately for Christie, New Jersey’s finances are once again in crisis, and it could get ugly," writes Peek, in a piece titled "Scott Walker Stealing Christie's Playbook."
The Walker-Christie dynamic was explored further this week by Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman, but given the fact that Christie either hasn't subscribed to The New York Times in a long time or just gave up reading for Lent, there's a good chance he missed it.
But the comparison is irresistable. Christie versus Walker. How do you want to play it? Compare the governor with a sling of YouTube clips of him yelling at public sector employees to the governor who bested them in a series of political brawls? Place the guy who wanted a blowout win over nobody Barbara Buono next to the guy who zealously relishes the opportunity to brag about surviving close calls? You can't help but see Christie as the guy who went through much less, and has come out looking the more tired of the two.
Walker, of course, arrived at CPAC on the last gusts of balloon juice vented over Rudy Giuliani's infamous contention that President Barack Obama doesn't "love America." As Giuliani was sharing that particular moment with Walker, the Wisconsin governor faced a fusillade of inquiry as to whether he shared those sentiments. Walker merely shrugged and took advantage in a way that put fresh veneer on his status as a conservative folk-hero -- by using the contretemps as one more instance of being targeted unfairly by the liberal media.
Meanwhile, here's Chris Christie, at CPAC, begging Laura Ingraham to be allowed to take a piece of that narrative for himself.
So what is the 2016 election about this week?
Fighting ISIS! Robert Kuttner: So, like it or not, the 2016 presidential election will be about national security. And most Americans and most voters will be very fearful of the threat that the Islamic State represents and confused about how we should respond.
Security and stability! The Cook Political Report's Amy Walter: "All of this is coming together for a lot of voters, in the sense that nothing seems to be going right. Domestically, again, there are some of the immediate problems, but still the big underlying problems about jobs not coming back, an economy that is well for some people, not everybody. So, I think that what voters are looking for is somebody to come in and say, 'I know we have an unstable world that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Let me tell you how I’m going to do that, both internationally, but here at home, to stabilize it and make you feel more secure.'"
The family-friendly workplace! Syndicated columnist Robert Samuelson: "If you're wondering what the 2016 presidential election will be about, here's one dark-horse possibility: the family-friendly workplace. As millions of Americans struggle to balance family and job demands, proposals requiring paid maternity leave and emergency sick leave have an obvious appeal for Hillary Clinton or any Democratic candidate. The subject is thornier for Republicans, who have resisted new taxes and regulations while also favoring pro-family policies."
How to read a poll, Scott Walker edition
Public Policy Polling had the hot, hot scoop: "PPP's newest national Republican poll finds a clear leader in the race for the first time: Scott Walker is at 25% to 18% for Ben Carson, 17% for Jeb Bush, and 10% for Mike Huckabee." Quinnipiac University's poll numbers showed up a day later, with fearful symmetry: "An early look at likely Iowa Republican Caucus participants shows a strong conservative tilt as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker leads the pack with 25 percent, twice as high as his nearest rival."
Now, it wasn't long ago, in these pages, that we discussed the matter of way-too-early polls, and their way-too-off tendencies in corresponding with reliability and predictability. There's political science that backs this up, and what the science says sort of reads as the cover story in the recent issue of the Journal Of Obvious Studies: the polls get more reliable and accurate as we get closer to Election Day. It makes you wonder why pollsters even conduct these polls. Do they need the practice? Are they trolling us? Actually, the answer is probably yes.
But remember: A lot of what pollsters do is about the journey, not the destination. Those top-line numbers, where the candidates are matched head-to-head and someone is allowed to seize the mantle of "frontrunner," are just the entry into another layer of data with their own stories to tell. Here, New York magazine's Jonathan Chait shows you how it's done:
A new Quinnipiac poll showing Walker leading in Iowa is more telling. The revealing data is not so much the top line numbers (Walker stands at 25 percent, with the next-highest candidate, Rand Paul, pulling 13 percent, and Bush at 10 percent). What’s more interesting is the favorable numbers. Walker receives 57 percent favorable ratings, against just 7 percent negative. Jeb Bush has a miserable 41 to 40 percent favorable rating among Iowa Republicans. That is a plus 50 percent favorable rating for Walker against plus 1 percent for Bush.
The way Walker has paid to conservative doubts in Iowa tells you a lot more about the vitality of his candidacy then the fact that he's staked out a slight lead over Ben Carson.
The Week In Predictions
Hillary Clinton: Hillary is totally going to raise $1.7 billion to run a 2016 campaign, according to an oddly specific Spencer Zwick. That suggests that there is a real hunger for a Clinton candidacy, right? Wrong, says Charles Krauthammer.
Rand Paul: "Sen. Rand Paul will likely get what he wants in Kentucky ... a way around state law preventing him from appearing on the ballot twice," writes Fred Lucas in The Blaze. But will Sheldon Adelson's promise to bankroll the effort to stop Paul's candidacy succeed? Ask Newt Gingrich, the horse that Adelson backed last time around (and who dropped serious coin on Bain Capital-themed oppo to stop Mitt Romney), how that worked out.
Lindsey Graham: Here's a bold prediction from former South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson: "If the Republicans win the White House, Lindsey Graham will have his choice of being Secretary of Defense or Secretary of State, if he [campaigns] right.” O-kay!
All The Advice That's Fit To Aggregate
Hillary Clinton should talk about income inequality. Jeb Bush should take a position on the wars his brother started. Rand Paul should gird his loins for a challenge from Wall Street's elite. Scott Walker should "resist the pull from the right to define himself in ways that make him less attractive to other segments of the party and to a general electorate."
We'll Leave You With This, Whatever This Is
There's no doubt that Jeb Bush dreamed of the day he would tweet about having to follow the dude from Duck Dynasty at CPAC.