Gerson: GOP needs transformative standard-bearer

Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON – It is the most important development so far in the 2016 presidential race, at least on the Republican side: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is evidently not a total meathead. Which he would have needed to be to have anything to do with the politically motivated lane closures of the George Washington Bridge – a dirty trick oddly and aimlessly directed at the public. According to recent reports, nine months of federal investigation into emails and text messages have produced nothing implicating Christie.

The Ford Gran Torino of GOP politics – a bit ungainly, but a V-8 under the hood – emerges with some dents. The proof Christie offers that he is not a bully is an admission that he surrounded himself with bullies. But the problem of picking the wrong people can be solved by picking better ones. And the attacks of Democrats and MSNBC commentators can now be worn as a badge of honor in the Republican primaries. While relatively moderate, Christie could appeal to conservatives who want to see a fight, which his opponents have helpfully provided.

Christie’s apparent victory in the juridical primary clarifies the Republican contest without doing anything to resolve it. According to GOP money types I’ve surveyed, many large donors are currently frozen in the choice between Christie and Jeb Bush, who are considered the most serious competitors to Hillary Clinton. Contributors are unlikely to jump to one until the intentions of both are clear.

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Talk of another Mitt Romney run is idle. He is an almost unnaturally decent man. He has been vindicated in many of his campaign criticisms of President Obama. Since his loss, he has been fluent, funny and at peace with himself. But Romney’s choice as the Republican nominee in 2012 will be remembered as an act of political self-harm. How could Republicans, as the effects of massive financial panic still lingered, have chosen a specialist in leveraged buyouts as their nominee? Romney managed to depress the enthusiasm of white working- and middle-class voters in key states while also actively alienating Hispanic and Asian voters (with talk of “self-deportation”). And still, alarmingly, he was the best Republican candidate of the 2012 field.

The next GOP presidential nominee cannot be the richest and whitest person in the room, prone to Reagan-era rhetoric about tax rates and regulatory burdens. While I oppose literacy tests for voting, I would support a requirement that Republican primary voters read the RNC’s 100-page “Growth and Opportunity Project” report issued in 2013, also known as the Republican autopsy. The short version: Republicans have a class problem – a disconnect with “middle-class workers [who] have not had a meaningful raise in years.” They also have a demographic problem, which requires Republicans to make a major shift in policy and attitude toward new Americans. “If we do not,” declares the autopsy, “our party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”

The typical argument between the Republican establishment and the conservative movement is pretty much irrelevant here. An establishment candidate who reinforces the perception of an elitist, out-of-touch, ethnically homogeneous party is not the answer. Neither is a candidate of conservative purification who has little appeal beyond core constituencies. The RNC autopsy is an establishment document calling for a revolution against the image and message of an establishment party – a plea to reach beyond the base before the GOP is overwhelmed by economic, cultural and demographic change.

Christie, with serious blue-collar appeal, might address the Republican class problem – unless he is out of his class. So far, his presidential indecision has allowed him to avoid comment on topics from immigration to the Islamic State. And it is an open question how his regional vividness will play in other regions of the country. (Recall Rudy Giuliani.) Jeb Bush, who has been called an “honorary Hispanic,” might address the Republican demographic problem – unless his support for comprehensive immigration reform and the Common Core educational standards provoke too much unfavorable conservative enthusiasm. And Republicans might, at some point, realize that Sen. Marco Rubio (who is doing serious policy speeches while others play Hamlet) manages to address both the class and demographic problems at once – unless it is a political problem to be confused for a very bright and earnest college student.

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Predicting anything about the eventual shape of this race is premature. But this much is clear: The task of the next Republican nominee is not only to motivate his or her party but to transform its appeal.

Michael Gerson’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.