"We are not a debating society. We are a political operation that needs to win."
Thus did Chris Christie offer one of the most pregnant statements yet in the ongoing Republican argument over the party's future. At the risk of sounding like one of those "professors" the New Jersey governor regularly condemns, I'd argue that these 15 words, spoken to a Republican National Committee meeting in Boston last week, raise more questions than they answer. Here are a few.
How do you decide on a winning strategy without debating it first? What is wrong with debating differences on policy and philosophy that people in political parties inevitably have? Don't the voters expect to have some idea of what a party and a candidate believe before they cast their ballots and doesn't that imply debate? Doesn't the phrase "political operation" risk implying that you are seeking power for power's sake and not for any larger purpose? There is also this: Isn't Christie himself engaged in an important debate with Sen. Rand Paul over national security issues?
There's nothing academic about that. One of two things is going on here: Either Christie knows he'll need to have the debate he claims he wishes to avoid but doesn't want to look like he is questioning fundamental conservative beliefs; or he really believes that the "I can win and the other guys can't" argument is enough to carry him to the 2016 Republican presidential nomination he shows every sign of seeking.
His target audience, after all, is an increasingly right-wing group of Republican primary voters who are unforgiving of ideological deviations. The last thing Christie needs is the sort of debate that casts him as a "moderate."
Let's stipulate that Christie is far less "moderate" than either his fans among Democrats and independents or the hardest-core conservatives seem to believe. Simply because Christie was nice to President Barack Obama after Hurricane Sandy at a moment when New Jersey needed all the federal help it could get lots of people forget how conservative the pre-Sandy Christie was.
In 2011, he went to the summer seminar sponsored by the Koch brothers in Colorado, heaped praise on them and said, among other things: "We know the answers. They're painful answers. We're going to have to reduce Medicare benefits. We're going to have to reduce Medicaid benefits. We're going to have to raise the Social Security age. We're going to have to do these things. We're going to have to cut all type of other government programs that some people in this room might like. But we're gonna have to do it."
If I were on the right, I'd be taken by Christie's skills at making conservative positions sound "pragmatic" and "practical." Candidates who are perceived as dogmatic or highly ideological rarely win elections.
But here's the problem: You can't run as a pragmatic candidate if your party won't let you. For Christie to win, he will have to persuade the grass-roots Republicans who decide nominations that the party's steady march rightward is a mistake.
Surely Paul, Ted Cruz and others among Christie's potential opponents won't let him slide by without challenging him hard yes, "debating" him about what he really stands for. Christie needs something more substantial than, "You guys are losers," even though he would relish saying it.
Mitt Romney's experience in 2012 is instructive. He was a relatively pragmatic governor, especially on health care, and could have been a more attractive candidate than he turned out to be. Yet the dynamics of a Republican primary electorate that is short on middle-of-the-roaders pushed Romney away from his old self and toward positions that made him less electable. Faced with opponents to his right, he was reactive and drifted their way. In the end, it wasn't clear who Romney was, other than the candidate who spoke derisively about the "47 percent."
Those who understand how a "political operation" works know that genuine pragmatism requires a defeated party to engage in rethinking, not just repositioning. Bill Clinton laid out a detailed program and a set of arguments as a "New Democrat." George W. Bush spoke of "compassionate conservatism" and challenged at least some of the most reactionary positions held by congressional Republicans.
Winning re-election this November by the biggest possible margin will buy Christie time. But eventually the debating society will beckon. He'll have to be very clear, if not professorial, about the argument he wants to make.
Reach E.J. Dionne at email@example.com.