Politics

Chris Christie: The New Tom Dewey

The ‘Time’ story is quite damaging indeed.

By 11.12.13

UPI
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He won re-election as a Republican governor by almost 60 percent of the vote. He loved to talk about what he called the “Teamwork Government” he had brought to his state capital — especially when it came to contrasting what he and his tight-knit band of advisers deemed as the wild success and popularity of his Teamwork Government with the chaos of Washington.

He boldly went where other Republicans would not go, winning an unprecedented pledge of neutrality from the deeply liberal labor movement. Stunningly, of the 24 members of the American Federation of Labor’s endorsement board, 22 wanted to enthusiastically endorse him, the union finally declining out of respect for the remaining 2 members who favored his Democratic opponent.

He was fearless in taking on his critics in his own Republican Party, repeatedly lecturing them that government was created to meet the needs of man, bluntly rejecting what he called “the blind obstruction which Democrats claim is our habit and some Republicans would like to take as our role.” At one campaign rally he was especially defiant. “It is the job of a majority party to build, not to tear down; to go forward, not to obstruct. It is not the function of a political party to die fighting for obsolete slogans.… In a generation torn by strife between extremists and fanatics, let us have the balance… to prove that democracy can maintain itself as a master of its own destiny, feed its hungry, house its homeless, and provide work for its idle… without the reliance on political racketeers.”

He loved the idea of medical insurance for the poor.

The media loved his bulldog manner, his bluntness (“That’s a stupid question,” he once barked to a reporter), making him the hottest politician to cover. He was, wrote one journalistic admirer, “a live figure in a party of snoozing stuffed shirts.” They heaped on the favorable publicity, “because he was so obviously hard-boiled,” noting admiringly — in one case in capital letters — that he “GETS THINGS DONE.” Particularly striking to his media fans was that he was so bold he never hesitated to excoriate “capital as well as labor.” At one hospital fundraiser, he “rose at the head table to lambaste his hosts,” saying to his “startled” audience of business leaders that “there are few rackets which do not rest securely and luxuriously upon the throne of business,” accusing his hosts of being unable to tell “the truth.” “Headlines surrounded” him, it was written by biographer Richard Norton Smith in Thomas E. Dewey and His Times, “like an inky nimbus.

It was admiringly written of him that he ran his state with “blunt talk and the kind of bipartisan dealmaking that no one seems to do anymore.” He lectured GOP bigwigs at a closed-door reception, saying “I’m in this business to win. I don’t know why you’re in it.” His message was “often devoid of policy or ideology,” with one prominent magazine writing that at that same fundraiser “he said ideologues had begun to edge out the winners in Ronald Reagan’s Big Tent. (He meant you, Tea Party, Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin.) They acted like college professors, just spotting ideas. ‘College professors are fine, I guess,’ he joked, before driving it home. ‘If we don’t win, we don’t govern. And if we don’t govern, all we do is shout into the wind.” On election night, savoring his landslide re-election as governor, he said, “If we can do this in Trenton, New Jersey, maybe the folks in Washington, D.C., should tune in their TVs right now, see how it’s done.” He is betting, wrote this admiring magazine, that he can “redirect the furies toward pragmatism and away from ideology.”

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is quite the guy, yes?

The problem? While all of the above may sound like it was written about Chris Christie, in fact only that last paragraph mentioning the names of today like the Tea Party, Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin was about Christie, taken from last week’s admiring profile (“Born to Run”) in a Time cover story titled “The Elephant in the Room.”

The rest? All of it sounding uncannily Christie-esque from the landslide gubernatorial re-election victory in a blue state to the blunt talking manner to the lines about “Teamwork Government,” holding aloft his state capital way of doing business in contrast to Washington? The scolding of his fellow Republicans as obstructionist ideologues for not being pragmatists with a willingness to moderate?

That wasn’t Chris Christie.

That was Thomas E. Dewey, the popular three-term Republican moderate governor of New York.

The man who lost not one but two presidential elections, one each in 1944 and 1948. The latter defeat coming in what is generally considered the greatest upset in American presidential political history, with Dewey losing to underdog Democrat Harry Truman. Dewey was so universally considered to be the winner in 1948 that Life magazine, the pictorial sister of Time, featured a cover photo of Dewey describing him as “the next president of the United States.” The Chicago Tribune was so convinced that it published its election edition with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” inadvertently giving winner Truman the famous photo of the victorious Democrat grinning from ear-to-ear as he held aloft a copy of the Tribune that was so humiliatingly wrong.

Yet despite his twin defeats, the first against FDR and the second, lacerating upset against Truman, they never deterred Dewey from lecturing his party in what we now might call Christie-style about moderation. Two years after that 1948 defeat Governor Dewey, making a successful run for a third term in Albany, showed up at Princeton to keep lecturing Republicans that if they abandoned what his conservative critics called “me-too” Republican liberalism they would lose.

Just as Chris Christie, according to Time, told those Boston moneymen that ideologues in the GOP acted like “college professors,” Dewey hit conservatives as the “vociferous few” who were nothing but “impractical theorists” who demanded “a platform of back-to-Methuselah.” The GOP, if it were to go back to its conservative roots, you could “bury the Republican party as the deadest pigeon in the country.” To survive, Dewey insisted, the GOP must become pragmatic, “a liberal and progressive party.”

By now, 65 years after Dewey’s last defeat, one Republican nominee after another has obsessed with moderation. The pattern is always — always — the same. Make the election as ideologically content-free as possible. In today’s world, it helps to salt speeches with references to Saint Ronald Reagan in the way lapsed or pro-abortion Catholics respect the Pope. While hoping no one notices that the moderate in question is delicately skirting around the persistent reality that Reagan had nothing but scorn for moderate Establishment Republicanism, disdaining it as the politics of the “fraternal order.”

So, what to do in the wake of the defeat of the last moderate GOP nominee, Mitt Romney? Not to mention his predecessor, John McCain? Or, reaching on back, Bob Dole and Gerald Ford? All four the Tom Dewey’s of their day? 

Why of course! Let’s do it again!

Recall all that favorable press about Tom Dewey? It vanished when he became the GOP presidential nominee. The man the media of the day loved for his bluntness and “Team Government” in Albany became sneered at as “the little man on top of the wedding cake” — a term rendered by no less than the daughter of Dewey’s icon Teddy Roosevelt, Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Dewey’s mustache drew comparisons to the recently deceased Adolf Hitler, his stern prosecutor’s demeanor suddenly now making him stiff, a martinet.

That Time magazine piece about Christie? The one that caused some to gasp at its cover portrayal of the overweight Christie as an “elephant”?

In fact, it was precisely not the cover but the contents that are going to damage Christie. Filled with observations that Christie runs around New Jersey and the rest of America giving speeches “devoid of policy or ideology,” invoking Dewey’s barbs targeting conservatives as “impractical theorists” by changing to Christie’s “college professors,” invoking Ronald Reagan’s name to re-make the conservative icon into his famous Establishment rival Gerald Ford — this is going to come back to haunt a Christie presidential bid.

What Christie is portraying of himself is precisely the same as Dewey did, the only difference being that Christie is re-running on the idea that seven decades of an obsession with the losing politics of GOP moderation is somehow this time a winner.

When Christie makes the rounds of the Sunday talk shows and looks the NBC audience in the eye on Meet the Press and when asked if he was a moderate or a conservative replies: “I don’t get into these labels — that’s the Washington, D.C. game and what all those men and women down there play… The people of America aren’t interested in that game” — Christie is foolishly playing a game. And in fact he’s terrible at it.

Contrast Christie’s game playing — the reluctance to choose one side or the other — with the stark contrast of Ronald Reagan in a1981 speech in which Reagan  proudly referred to himself and his audience as “those of us who call ourselves conservatives,” “we conservatives,” and “fellow conservatives.”

Amusingly, neither Christie nor his advisers seem to understand that Christie’s answer (whatever happened to that famous blunt outspokenness?) on Meet the Press unerringly identifies him with the Ford/Rockefeller/Bush Establishment wing of the party. Setting up any Christie run in precisely the same way Romney, McCain — and Tom Dewey — set themselves up: Alienating the party base by playing a game of buzzwords.

Worse than the losing politics of Deweyism is the governing obsession of Establishment Republicans. Dewey, for all his political faults, could be excused that his career came at the beginning of the liberal progressive experiment with American government. Once upon a time it may have been acceptable to think that, as Dewey’s conservative critics had it, “me-tooism” was a requisite for both political victory and successful governance.

But now? 

By the second decade of the 21st century? With the government-driven crash of both the housing and health care sectors of the American economy fresh in the memory, it is nothing if not bizarre for a Republican of any serious moment to seriously think all of this government involvement in the American private sector should be just trimmed along the edges, moderated or dealt with in non-ideological fashion. Supported in some fashion as the obvious requirement of a “compassionate conservative” — the latter term applied to Dewey himself in 1982 by a sympathetic biographer when a young George W. Bush was known if at all as just the vice president’s son.

Pragmatism is the language of governing failure, its result a serious Republican Establishment responsibility for the nation’s $17 trillion debt and $90 trillion in unfunded liabilities.

Christie is certainly right about going to places in America that are unfriendly. Ronald Reagan took his arguments to both the black and Latino communities in America. His appearance in the then-deteriorating South Bronx — which had rebounded by the end of his two-terms — made headlines in the fall of 1980 precisely because he stuck to his “ideological” (as Christie might call it) message. Indeed, on the day he was shot in 1981 Reagan was leaving the Washington Hilton after giving a speech to the Construction Trades Council. His message to this Big Labor group never deviated from his larger message that he had spoken of endlessly since his debut on the national political stage in his televised 1964 speech for Barry Goldwater.

It mattered not to Reagan whether the audience was left or right or what its color was — his central theme of conservatism was always, always the same. It would never have crossed his mind to tour America giving speeches Christie-style (according to Time) that were “devoid of policy or ideology.”

The mistake made here is not to understand that to Establishment Republicans, moderation is an ideology. It is not too much to say Establishment Republicans are obsessed with the ideology of non-ideology. Those in the GOP who believe this are instantly recognizable because they speak in the Tom Dewey language of “pragmatism” and “getting things done.” The very language today of Chris Christie.

Even more ludicrous is MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough in the same Time issue trying to compare the moderate Dwight Eisenhower to the conservative Ronald Reagan. Scarborough re-writes history. Eisenhower was in fact Dewey’s candidate in 1952. Reagan was famously viewed by the Eisenhower-style Establishment Gerald Ford as “very conservative” and too “extreme” to “ever win a national election.” Reagan was in fact seen then just as Ted Cruz is today — too extreme. The re-writing of Reagan by the very Establishment that sought to defeat him when not deriding him continues — shamefully unabashed.

What does “getting things done” mean if one is an Establishment Republican?

It merely means moving the government and the nation left at a slower rate, maybe a half-dozen ratchets at a time instead of hundreds of leftward ratchets at a time. It is about not capitalism — but crony capitalism. And of note in that same issue of Time was an excerpt of the book Double Down: Game Change 2012 by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. The excerpt focused on Christie and why Mitt Romney wound up not picking Christie as his running mate. Wrote the two:

There was the fact that Christie worked as a lobbyist on behalf of the Securities Industry Association at a time when Bernie Madoff was a senior SIA official — and sought an exemption from New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act. There was Christie’s decision to steer hefty government contracts to donors and political allies like former Attorney General John Ashcroft, which sparked a congressional hearing.

Behold: crony capitalism at work, Chris Christie-style.

Is Chris Christie the future of the Republican Party?

Based on what Chris Christie himself says, the future of the Republican Party is in digging up the moldy “non-ideology” that is really not just another ideology but for Establishment Republicans an obsessive ideology.

The ideology of poor old Tom Dewey.

Promising Republicans yet another certain defeat. Or worse, a president who just wants to manage the “achievements” of the left better than the left.

Unfortunately for Governor Christie he’s some seven decades late to this losing ideology. 

Can Chris Christie become the new Thomas E. Dewey?

He’s certainly trying hard enough.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.