How much do political parties matter? Two Northeastern races for governor might give us a clue.
In New Jersey, the indefatigable Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, has been making nice with Democrats and acting – well, not like a Democrat or a Republican, but like a guy who is the governor and wants to do whatever he can for his beloved state. That means working with Democratic President Obama (GOP code name: The Foreign-Born Devil) to help the Garden State return to some semblance of its moniker, rebuilding the Jersey Shore and the businesses there that rely on summer tourism. Obama and Christie looked like two guys in a buddy movie, tossing a football around and touring the recovering beaches.
This is the sort of thing that gives hope that politicians can act like concerned Americans first and party people second – or preferably, 15th. It's also the sort of thing that makes part of the GOP furious, since they see cavorting with the FBD as tantamount to being one yourself. The friend of my enemy, the thinking goes, is nobody's friend.
Then we have Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, a decent and soft-spoken former U.S. senator who left the Republican party to run for governor as an independent. Chafee was always an independent thinker, anyway – way too independent for the Republican party, which sniped about Chafee's opposition to the Iraq war and did little to help him in his last Senate campaign. They made their point, and they lost the election to a Democrat.
Now, Chafee intends to become a Democrat ahead of his next run for governor. Some conservatives might argue that this is long overdue, that Chafee has been walking and talking like a Democrat for some time, and that it's about time he made it official. But the sad thing is that Chafee even feels he needs to align with a major political party at all.
Americans claim to like outsider candidates, or at least people who aren't tied to a party apparatus or ideology. And yet our system makes it nearly impossible for someone to succeed that way. Running as an independent can work in a first campaign, especially if the major party candidates are weak. But then the power of the political parties starts to build, and the onetime independent is forced to pick a side.
One doesn't have to be a so-called "moderate" to forge common ground or bring his or her state or district together. It's less a function of ideology than it is an understanding – something most of us had drilled into our heads by age four – that we can't get everything we want and have to cooperate with other people for the sake of family comity or the common good. Christie gets that, working with Obama on rebuilding his state and lavishing praise on the president for being so helpful – another great adult characteristic. And Chafee has never been an ideologue, even when he was a member of a major political party.
Christie is popular, and it's hard to see him as vulnerable in a gubernatorial re-election race. But what if he runs for higher office? Will his embrace of Obama ruin him with the hard right of his party? And if Chafee indeed runs as a Democrat out of electoral necessity, will he be poisoned across the political spectrum, with Democrats, Republicans and independents not really seeing him as one of their own?
Both Christie and Chafee display the sort of post-partisanship so lacking in Washington now. Whether that will translate into votes is an open question.