Matt Bai On Life After Christie Says No

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Matt Bai, chief political correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, discusses the Republican field and whether we should consider it set now that Chris Christie ruled out a last-minute bid.

In a speech sure to break the hearts of Republicans nationwide, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie told New Jersey, “like it or not, you’re stuck with me” – that is, he’s is really, for sure, definitely not running for president. 

He said that the overwhelming urging that he received to run did lead him to reconsider, but ultimately his love of New Jersey is keeping him there. Yet speculation about late entrants into the race has not slowed, simply shifting course instead to rumors of Sarah Palin-connected law firms and Rudy Giuliani operatives. 

Matt Bai said he personally doesn’t see the late entry scenario as all that likely.

I think there’s a media fascination with other candidates because the field has formed late and been a little unsettled. I think there’s a fascination among some Republicans, still, contributors and establishment types who aren’t satisfied.

Overall, though, in talking to a number of Republicans recently, he said the overriding sentiment seems to be one of acceptance, if not complete satisfaction, coupled with a desire to move forward.

 There’s a fading obsession here among insider Republicans with trying to find some sort of white knight to come in and save that day, and I think Christie was probably the last of that genre.

Christie didn’t corner the market on blond, take-no-prisoners Republican prosecutors with rumored presidential aspirations. Another of these, Rudy Giuliani, has also received some urging to jump into the fray, but so far has failed to gain traction in any of the key states.

It did make me think about whether this sort of...tri-state brand of machismo really works outside of the area. In other parts of the country there’s really no historic evidence that it does.

Bai said that the confrontational north-eastern style of the two men may play best regionally, with other parts of the country finding those mannerisms off-putting, but he doesn’t think that means the two would necessarily be out of the running.

Having watched Chris Christie, he has a really sophisticated and highly skillful way of communicating to voters using imagery and language, so I wouldn’t underestimate him. And it may have something to do with the moment. It may be that in certain moments people want more of a confrontational approach than they do in others.

As for Palin, Bai said no one knows what she will do but it seems unlikely at this point that she would jump in.

I think it’s awfully late for Sarah Palin, I think her negative numbers are quite daunting, inside the party.

Palin could become an intriguing figure next year, Bai allowed, if Romney gets the nomination and the more radical end of the party feels like they were short-changed. Yet he cautioned against looking ahead to the Obama-Romney debates too soon.

I don’t think it’s that kind of campaign. I think it’s going to be pretty hard fought. Romney’s had a long time to solidify his place as the next guy inline…. He hasn’t done it. There’s obviously a real significant misgiving at the core of the party.

While Bai believes Romney to be the likely candidate, but said he is going to have to fight hard to win. Perry’s entrance helped Romney, Bai said “because the guy [Perry] just scares a lot of Republicans here.” Perry’s emerging extremism doesn’t necessarily indict all of Texas as having similar values, but Bai said it does raise questions.

You can be the governor of a pretty diverse state and still have some pretty extreme views… but he certainly represents a brand of Texas culture that I think is endemic and maybe even exclusive to that part of the country and that plays better with some voters obviously than it does with others.

Herman Cain, former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, remains in the running with his message of getting government out of the way of private industry. A recent spattering of polls show Cain drawing a significant percent of voters, but Bai doesn’t this very meaningful.

These straw polls and these national polls are really reflecting two things. They’re reflecting very small numbers of people and they’re reflecting a very temporary impulse in the electorate. Don’t forget a couple of months ago Donald Trump was ahead in national polls.

Bai does think that Cain has populist appeal, with “a great voice and a great presence” giving vent to people’s frustrations, but he finds surprising the acceptance of Cain’s blatant anti-Muslim sentiment.

Here’s a guy who has been absolutely brutal, talking about the Muslim population in the United States and wanting to ban mosques and saying he wouldn’t hire any Muslims. You have two Mormon candidates on these debate stages, and I’ve been really shocked that neither of those candidates in particular, has been willing to stand up and call him out on that sort of religious discrimination.

The Obama presidency has faced criticism from both the left and the right that the president failed to demonstrate leadership, but each side presents an entirely different idea about where he failed to lead. Romney, in presenting a more nuanced criticism, Bai said, has shown himself to be a less reactionary, more thoughtful candidate.

[Romney] has grown as a candidate in the last couple months… His indictment of the Obama administration has gotten a little sharper and more elegant … I think in small ways and some of these larger message ways, you see Romney sort of grappling for something larger… whether he can get there and whether he’s convincing in that role, and what it costs him in the primary process is really an open set of questions.