Chris Christie may be a long shot if he runs in 2024, but he has one extremely important idea that other Republicans could learn from: Candidates should say why they’d be a better choice than their top rivals.
Everyone knows the case for Ron DeSantis over Donald Trump in the Republican primary, for example. In fact, it’s the same case for almost every Republican running against Trump: They think he’s a dangerous incompetent who blew the last election for extremely obvious reasons and is now determined to blow the next one by spending half his waking hours whining about it.
But almost nobody in the race is willing to say this because that might make Trump supporters mad. Instead, they’re hoping voters will find their own message appealing and then reach the necessary conclusion about Trump on their own.
The result is candidates showering praise on the person they’re trying to defeat while their feistier super PACs or on-background strategists occasionally complain he’s (gasp!) too mean to fellow Republicans, or a tad bit squishy on guns or COVID-19. Versions of these arguments all failed in 2016 when Trump was weaker and mostly don’t touch on the core doubts Republicans have now.
So here’s a radical suggestion: Candidates should skip this too-cute sideshow and make the case that voters are thinking about already.
You know who takes this lesson to heart? Donald Trump.
At the beginning of the 2016 race, Jeb Bush was the frontrunner and everyone knew his top vulnerability: His last name. So when Jeb’s onetime protege Marco Rubio launched his campaign, he subtly called for a “new generation” of politicians to take over. The press caught the implied reference to his brother’s unpopular presidency and gave him the headlines he wanted. Very clever.
Then Trump showed up and just said the quiet part out loud: George W. Bush was a lousy president who left Republicans with Barack Obama in charge and the Iraq War was a stupid idea. Republicans weren’t used to hearing that from their side — Jeb squawked that Trump sounded like “Michael Moore.” But the attacks reinforced Trump’s outsider brand and raised voter concerns about Jeb’s viability. Meanwhile, Rubio’s bank shots fed the idea he was a too-slick professional politician, which Christie eventually used to end his campaign in a single debate.
When people say Trump ”tells it like it is” despite being a serial liar, this is often what they mean. He’s sometimes credited with a savant-like ability to identify his opponents’ vulnerabilities, but much of this schtick is just repeating what pundits on cable are already saying about them rather than using some “Inception”-style scheme to plant the same idea in voters’ subconscious with magic words.
Trump and his allies portraying DeSantis as an off-putting weirdo who’s too far right for swing voters — exactly what talking heads already say his vulnerabilities are — is perfectly in line with this approach. Whatever DeSantis is doing right now with Trump is not.
Take Trump’s indictment: DeSantis tried an “Inception” move by casually mentioning Trump’s hush money payment to Stormy Daniels — without criticizing it — while defending him. This was too clever by half: Trump’s fans caught the implication, demanded he rally harder behind Trump, and then DeSantis looked weak backing off.
What would a more direct version look like? It would probably sound closer to what Christie had to say at Semafor’s Tuesday event. He criticized the indictment, but added: “If you have someone who has had an affair with a porn star, paid her off $130,000 to cover it up, to keep that information from the American people while he’s seeking the highest office in the land, that’s not the character of someone I think should be President of the United States.”
Perhaps this particular indictment is not the best hill to die on. But saying you’re a winner is not the same as calling Trump a loser. Saying you’re a strong executive whose appointees know what they’re doing is not the same as saying Trump is a lousy executive whose appointees were disasters by his own admission. Eventually, you have to say what it is you mean or voters start to wonder if you have anything to say at all.
Room for Disagreement
Republican messaging guru Frank Luntz thinks candidates need to downplay their opposition to Trump and pick the right moments to criticize him. “If they think a candidate’s mission is to defeat their hero, the candidate will fail,” he writes in the New York Times. “But if a 2024 contender convinces them that he or she wants to listen to and learn from them, they’ll give that person a chance.”