There were many candidates at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual spring meeting Saturday at The Venetian. But there was only one real contender.
If there can be said to be a winner of what the Washington Post dubbed the “Adelson primary,” for Las Vegas Sands Chairman Sheldon Adelson, it was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Apart from almost every other speaker, Christie showed a pragmatic understanding of the real nature of politics — winning comes first — without seeming as if he was ready to sell his soul to move from Trenton to Washington, D.C.
But that fits right in with Adelson’s newfound decision to search for a candidate who can win, not just one who sounds the right philosophical notes. And Christie hit that theme hard, even echoing former Democratic President Bill Clinton.
“I’m not in this business to have an academic conversation,” Christie said. “I’m not in this business to win the argument. I’m in this business to win elections.”
In a line that’s fast becoming part of Christie’s stump speech (he used it at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md. this year, too), Christie reminded the crowd that when Republicans fight with each other and lose, Democrats get to govern. As a result, he said he’s favoring a single principle in 2014: winning.
“It’s time for us to stop worrying as a party to stop worrying about wins the argument and start worrying about who wins the election,” he said. “If we want to have arguments about things that lead to nothing, we can just form a university. They serve a purpose, but not in our business.”
Got that, eggheads? You’ve no place in the GOP!
But seriously, folks, of all the pro-Israel pandering that went on at the Republican Jewish Coalition — and it was plentiful, obvious and clumsy — it was Christie’s pandering to Adelson on electability that was most sublime. And not just because he prefaced it with a roundup of stories about how he took on entrenched, Democratic interests in New Jersey and won. That part of his remarks was designed to blunt the criticism that if one goes for winning over everything else, one must necessarily surrender one’s principles. (Indeed, Clinton’s popularity among far-left progressives who disdain his triangulations and coalition-building has never been high.)
But Christie said he took on the Legislature by cutting $2 billion via executive order rather than negotiations, he pushed for reducing the state’s payroll, a package of state employee retirement reforms and tenure only for teachers who deserve it, all contrary to the wishes of entrenched interests in his state. Republicans need to be willing to take on the other side, and even get booed in the process. “We’ll live. It will be fun,” he said. (Another point in Christie’s favor, and another area where he’s similar to Clinton: He seems to relish the combat side of politics, an essential trait for somebody who wants to run for president.)
So what of Bridgegate, the scandal in which top Christie aides allegedly shut down lanes on the George Washington bridge, causing traffic tie-ups in a little town on the New Jersey side where the mayor refused to endorse Christie’s re-election bid? That may be Christie’s greatest weakness: Even if the evidence shows he knew nothing about the plot (and it does, thus far) the other conclusion is that he failed to appreciate what was going on in his own office.
“My obligation as a chief executive is to constantly question things and never get comfortable,” he said. “I am going to be responsible for all that happens on my watch, both what’s happened and what’s going to happen going forward.” His comfort in answering the question goes a long way toward taking some of the sting out of the issue, even though investigations are continuing.
If Democrats were wise, they’d worry about Christie as the Republican standard-bearer in 2016.
As for the rest of the field in the Adelson primary?
Former U.N. ambassador John Bolton delivered some red-meat broadsides against President Barack Obama, accusing him of not believing in “American exceptionalism.” This had led to foreign policy problems from the Middle East to Ukraine, Bolton said. While some — including the president — may think that demonstrations of American military strength cause unrest, it’s actually perceptions of weakness that do. “Weakness is the condition that invites others to take advantage of us,” Bolton said. “It’s not strength that’s provocative. It’s weakness.”
And while Obama has preferred negotiations to solve international problems, Bolton said talks that prove fruitless are actually worse than not talking. He cited the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Syria and Iran and its nuclear program as examples. “All three of these talks, these series of talks, will fail,” he said. “It is not the case that you have nothing to lose by negotiations.”
But Bolton’s biggest applause line came when he accused former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of neglect of duty in the wake of getting news that the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya was under attack. Clinton didn’t do what her predecessors would have, which would have been to communicate with the Defense Department about a rescue. “The lesson is you can kill the personal representative of the president of the United States and get away with it and that is a terrible lesson and Hillary Clinton is not going to be allowed to forget it,” he said to raucous applause.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker recounted his fights against public-sector unions in his state, keeping with the theme of strong leadership. “If people around the world, not only our adversaries but our allies, too, don’t believe we are strong, they will take action,” he said. He told his gubernatorial cabinet about President Ronald Reagan’s firing of striking air traffic controllers before beginning his own fights with state unions, adding, “I believe we have to be strong like that in America once again.”
Walker’s laundry list of prescriptions for domestic policy wasn’t exactly original: cut taxes; replace the Affordable Care Act; embrace domestic energy sources (including oil and coal); rein in bureaucracy and “put power in the hands of states.” But he grew downright pedantic when he said the difference between Democrats and Republicans was that Democrats measure success based upon how many people are dependent on the government, while Republicans measure it in how many people are freed from that dependency.
Yes, he was apparently serious.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich sucked up most directly and obviously to Adelson, mentioning him by name several times during his remarks, as if he was speaking only to the casino man. He recounted his own struggles against budget deficits, and his own embrace of tax cuts as the path to prosperity.
“When I think about work, I think about dignity,” Kasich said. “Job creation is our greatest moral purpose, because it changes human beings.”
Job creation is our greatest moral purpose? Not protecting the defenseless against oppression at home and around the globe? Not investing in research to bring clean, cheap energy to America, and, ultimately, the world? Not pursuing an education system that equips the next generation to inherit the blessings of liberty and the work of democracy? Not curing disease, fighting poverty, ignorance or environmental degradation?
Nope. It’s job creation.
Kasich admitted the United States had failed when it comes to dealing with the mentally ill. When large mental institutions were shut down in favor of community-based care (which took place during the reign of Reagan, for those who care to recall), the idea was to make things more efficient. “We have not kept our promise,” he said. In Nevada, that admission is especially acute.
Asked how to win the next election, Kasich told the audience that Republicans need to understand people’s problems, and show them they can run the economy well. If they do those two things, “I think we might get hired,” he said.
But who will be the CEO in that initiative? Of the candidates who appeared on Saturday, it was Christie who was the most pragmatic, the most pugnacious, but also the most presidential.