As the 2016 campaign enters its first full summer, the Acela Republican, that rare but widely heralded species of candidate, is increasingly apparent on the national stage. With Tuesday’s entry of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie into the presidential contest, I thought it might be valuable to provide you a field guide to Acela Republicans: their behavior, habits, and peculiarities as a species.
Christie will have some competition from Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Lindsey Graham in winning the Acela primary, but in this race he’s a perfect exemplar of the species. I’d mention George Pataki, but that would just be cruel. Sure, some of you think Jeb Bush is an Acela Republican, but you’re wrong. He actually governed as a conservative, despite what you think of him today.
Acela Republicans hate Republicans. There are three kinds of people who hate the Republican Party: liberals (for all their usual, tiresome reasons), hard conservatives (who value purity over winning anything, anywhere, ever) and Acela Republicans. Acela Republicans hate Republican voters, particularly primary voters, because they’re embarrassed by them. They don’t want to talk to them, for fear some of their proletarian nature will rub off. They either sit silently or join in the chorus when their friends in the media display their dripping, venomous contempt for anyone who lives outside coastal metros or was educated somewhere outside the Ivy League.
The Underpants Gnome Theory of Republican Campaigns
Acela Republicans play fantasy-league politics. “If only the rest of my party was pro-spending, pro-abortion, pro-gun control, loathed these religious bumpkins and their backward sky god, embraced a carbon tax, read the Times each morning and wanted to level the economic playing field with a bulldozer…then we’d start winning” is the lament of Acela Republicans. They fundamentally misread the electorate in both the Republican primary and the general election, time and again, and conflate contempt for pragmatism and smart politics.
Acela Republican campaigns consist of exotic bank shots. Acela Republicans look at the battlefield of the modern Republican primary and say, “Yuck.” It’s why they fetishize New Hampshire. “We’ll lose Iowa, win New Hampshire, do okay in South Carolina, win Florida, lose everything else in the South and hold on ‘til California…” They also seem to think that someday, somehow The New York Times will hold its nose and endorse them in the general and they’ll win one of the Big Blues. It’s the Underpants Gnome Theory of Republican campaigns.
Acela Republicans think they’re inspirational, and they’re wrong. Acela Republicans think voters are moved by their flavor of brusque, straight-talkin’ brimstone. They think voters want to be told Hard Truths. They’re always wrong. Americans fear hard truths about the budget, entitlements, and our looming fiscal doom. The problems are so huge now that voters have created a cognitive firewall, and no amount of straight-talk will bridge it (looking at you both, Christie and Kasich). To leaven their tough talk, they’ll do a pro forma nod to an optimistic, prospective vision about the glory of America to their speeches, but only because a speechwriter tells them to, not because it illuminates their hearts. They’re fundamentally procedural, not inspirational. Marco Rubio could read a Waffle House menu and be more inspiring than Chris Christie.
The Media Loves Acela Republicans Until It Hates Them
Acela Republicans are creatures of the media, from beginning to end. Acela Republicans are always the smartest, tallest, most articulate, most handsome fellows in the room. Just ask the people at The New York Times or MSNBC or The Washington Post, who have adopted them like exotic pets. “Oh, look,” they coo, “This one doesn’t bite or have any of those ugly, primitive conservative policies. We shall feed it, caress it and keep it for our own.”
Acela Republicans are shocked by the media’s betrayal. After years of media love and attention, John McCain found himself beset at every turn in 2008, unable to comprehend why his good friends in the press were suddenly busy destroying him at Barack Obama’s behest. “But I’m always on the Sunday shows, and this Obama fellow doesn’t even know Tammy Haddad.” Jon Huntsman, famously feted as the smart, green, modern Republican, was suddenly an also-ran practically the minute he touched down from China. Reasonable Mitt Romney? He killed a woman, remember?
Acela Republicans never get invited to the prom in the general election. No matter how perfectly reasonable Acela Republicans think they’ve been, the Democratic candidate could eat a live baby on national television, proclaim fealty to Cthulhu, and threaten to incinerate Topeka with cleansing nuclear flame and the media will still be in his camp at the end. No matter how corrupt (Clinton), crazy (Sanders), commie (Warren) the Democrat is, they’re getting all the media love in the end.
The donor class loves Acela Republicans, until they don’t. Major donors want three things in a candidate: a winner, a smart guy, and someone their wives don’t hate. That’s why the most liberal Republican in the field tends to get a flush of Wall Street donor money early-on. The problem with this kind of love is that it’s a conditional as a fourth-marriage pre-nup—once the blush is off the rose, they suddenly cut off the credit cards.
Acela Republicans Substitute Bluster for Courage
Acela Republicans think their record is all that. Listen to Chris Christie and you’ll hear him describe New Jersey’s economy as a shining example for the nation to follow. That sound? Rick Perry, Scott Walker, and Jeb Bush laughing their tails off about the fiscal trainwreck of Mogadishu on the Passaic compared to Texas, Wisconsin, and Florida. The Senatus Acelus subspecies of Acela Republican is also quick to say things like, “As the Chairman of the Subcommittee on International Mushroom Farming, I passed a markup that…” They conflate the minutiae of Senate business with relevant accomplishments, and that’s a Venn diagram without a lot of overlap.
Acela Republicans substitute bluster for courage. If a voter pokes an Acela Republican hard enough, he or she is sure to get the “Sit down and shut up!” response, in which New Jersey governor and semi-pro insult comic Chris Christie specializes. All it takes is for one media person or activist to yell “RACIST!” or “BIGOT” or “CLIMATE DENIER!” at Acela Republicans and they fold faster than cheap tent in a hurricane. The vicious nastiness they display toward Republican opponents is replaced by exaggerated civility when they’re up against the Democratic nominee. This is one reason Carly Fiorina will never be an Acela Republican: she likes to scrap, she’s good with a shank, and has more stones than Christie on his best day.
Acela Republicans love town halls, but hate debates. This is because Acela Republicans love to hear themselves talk and talk and talk about their favorite topic: themselves. The town hall format lets them take a question, elide over it, then talk about how wonderful they are. Debates? Not so much. Debates mean Acela Republicans have to engage other Republicans (and, God forbid, conservatives), to answer questions outside their comfort zone, and be accountable for their (always lacking) conservative bona fides.
Acela Republicans punch down. If you were raised right (e.g., in the South or Midwest), you know punching down doesn’t increase your stature. It makes you look like a jerk, at best. The one-note schtick of the Christie put-down is great YouTube fodder, but terrible politics in the long run. It’s also material for a hundred ads down the line, none of which will contain a whit of context but will feature his bellowing, crimson visage shouting down some schoolteacher.
Republicans have a rich (perhaps too rich) portfolio of candidates this year. They range from the very serious to the absurd, but now that you can spot the Acela Republican in the wild, you’ll at least know which candidates to avoid.