It's been a rough week for two of the GOP's leading lights. Tumultuous town halls showed that two of conservatism’s biggest stars, Paul Ryan and Chris Christie, may be crashing to earth, and taking the GOP’s 2016 hopes down with them.
Paul Ryan — “The Brain"
Rep. Paul Ryan (R, WI) has been one of the GOP’s best hopes for the future since he was named as one of Republican party’s “young guns,” along with Reps. Eric Cantor (R, VA) and Kevin McCarthy (R, CA). Together the 40-something “youngsters” represented a new generation of conservative leaders. Cantor was the “leader” of the pack, and McCarthy was the “strategist,” Ryan was cast as the “thinker” — the idea man who would make conservative policies palatable to the general public.
Conservatives saw their ideas ridiculed and rejected as backwards. Ryan made them feel smart. Conservative policies were criticized as heartless and cruel. Ryan gave them a thin veneer of compassion, with a message that conservatives were essentially being “cruel to be kind.”
Ryan was surprisingly successful at selling conservative “ideas,” considering the lack of substance and originality in his work. Ryan’s coronation in no less than the New York Times was a testament to how easily draconian budgets that all but eliminated programs like Social Security and Medicare, raised taxes for the middle-class, and gave even bigger tax breaks to the wealthy could be sold with little more than ill-fitting suits, dazzling blue eyes, and mid-western earnestness. Ryan’s rise culminated with his elevation to the no. 2 spot on the GOP’s 2012 presidential ticket, to shore up Mitt Romney’s conservative credentials.
This month, Ryan was back in the spotlight with a survey of the war on poverty, that was roundly trashed by the very scholars whose work Ryan manipulated to make his point. In his speech at CPAC, Ryan used a bogus story about a schoolboy to suggest that low-income parents don’t care about their children. Finally, last week Ryan made news again on Bill Bennett’s radio show, and tooted his dog whistle about “inner city culture” and poverty. Ryan even cited conservative researcher who claimed that blacks and Latinos have lower IQs than whites.
Naturally, all hell broke lose, and Ryan’s attempts to walk back his remarks didn’t fool anyone.
The controversy followed Ryan back to his home district this week. where constituents at a town hall meeting confronted him on opposition to Obamacare. Things got even more heated when Alfonso Gardner, a black man from Mount Pleasant, blasted Ryan for his “inner city culture” remarks.
Ryan repeated his claim that his comments were “not about race,” but Garner remained as unconvinced as everyone else — besides Republicans, that is.
Chris Christie — “The Bully”
If Paul Ryan represented the “brains” of the conservative movement, then New Jersey governor Chris Christie embodied conservatism’s bullying spirit. Christie’s manner made him the ideal pitchman for the “bully economy” — the “hard sell” flip-side of Ryan’s “soft sell.” Christie’s willingness to use the authority and power of his office to silence, intimidate, and punish those who opposed him, made him the GOP’s celebrity bully, because Christie was not only willing to be a bully, but reveled in it.
Christie cultivated his bully image. Staff members accompanied the governor to town hall meetings, armed with camcorders to capture Christie shouting down and belittling citizens who dared criticize him. Christie’s staff then edited the videos, and posted them to Christie’s YouTube channel, and conservatives passed them around like tweens circulating the latest boy band video. At a time when conservatives were out of power, Christie made them feel powerful.
Scandal continued to plague Christie this week.
- Recently released emails related to the Bridgegate scandal showed that Christie’s ex-campaign manager Bill Stepien was kept in the loop by Christie’s top Port Authority appointee, even as lanes remained blocked on the George Washington Bridge, making it harder to believe that Christie remained completely out of the loop.
- Campaign documents show that once elected to his first term as governor, Christie awarded big pension management contracts to his Wall Street donors — after the Christie campaign criticized Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine for making it “easier for his friends from Wall Street to manage New Jersey’s pension fund.”
- Complaints over disbursement of Hurricane Sandy relief — including delays, shoddy work from contractors, and shady dealings in how Christie’s administration doles out the funds — grew louder and more numerous.
It’s only going to get worse. According to recent Bloomberg News Poll, 63 percent of Americans don’t believe Christie’s Bridgegate denials, and that includes 43 percent of Republicans.
Christie may soon face the worst moment in any bully’s career — that moment when the people he used to bully aren’t afraid of him anymore, and the people who used to back him up don’t anymore.
With the bully and the brain of the conservative movement in trouble, and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker dealing with his own problems, what does that mean for right-wing hopes in 2016? Let’s put it this way. Republicans are taking a second look at Jeb Bush, Joe Scarborough is testing the waters, Mike Huckabee is slimming down again, and Bobby Jindal is making all the right noises.