Chris Christie is going to be re-elected as New Jersey’s governor this week, but forget that. Now’s the time to start focusing on his presidential prospects.
Because unless and until he says “no” to the prospect, the possibility of a GOP run is going to influence everything Christie does and how it’s seen. New Jersey isn’t just the place he governs. It’ll be his stage.
A year ago, I was pretty sure Christie had no chance in 2016. After his self-serving performance as the keynote speaker for the GOP convention, and after his Obama-embracing stunts in the final weeks of the 2012 campaign, I figured there was no way Christie would earn the trust and forgiveness of enough Republicans to earn the nominations. The leaks about his failure to win Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential nod, you’d think, might even further damage him.
But like the rest of the world, I saw him close out his gubernatorial campaign over the weekend by snarling publicly at a school teacher, and I realized that Christie—no matter his previous sins—is probably the perfect man to represent Republicans in the next presidential election. Why?
• HE LOVES TO PICK A FIGHT. This has been Christie’s defining feature, by far, since he entered politics—and, not coincidentally, it’s been the defining feature of the post-Goldwater Republican Party, as Rick Perlstein spelled out in his book, Nixonland, a few years back. Conservatives say their ideology is about limited government and fealty to the vision of the Founders, but the engine driving the movement is good old-fashioned resentment of pointy-headed liberals who think they’re smarter or better or more compassionate than you. Chris Christie could run New Jersey as a socialist wonderland, and as long as he regularly posted YouTube videos of himself being snotty to kindergarten teachers, conservatives would probably be ready to give him their hearts.
• BUT HE DOESN’T GOVERN THAT DIFFERENTLY FROM THE DEMOCRATS HE CRITIQUES. The New York Times had a great piece last week showing that the substance of Christie’s governorship isn’t all that different from his predecessor, Democrat John Corzine—he’s using the same gimmicks to balance the budget, has incurred more debt for transportation projects than his predecessors, has shrunk state surpluses to their lowest percentage in a decade, which has helped give Jersey one of the country’s lowest bond ratings.
Very presidential—or, at least, Republican presidential. Ronald Reagan railed against “tax and spend Democrats,” then exploded the deficit and debt. George H.W. Bush urged us to read his lips to understand he’d never approve a tax increase—then did. George W. Bush ran against nation-building and then did nothing but in Iraq and Afghanistan for most of his eight years. You can argue that there were reasons for all of this, but there always are, aren’t there? The lesson is you really shouldn’t expect Republican rhetoric to match Republican accomplishments.
• WHICH MEANS THE GOP WILL SPEND FOUR-TO-EIGHT YEARS BACKING HIM AND DEFENDING HIM, THEN PRETENDING HE’S AN APOSTATE AFTER HE’S LEFT OFFICE: In the last 40 years, the only Republican president who remains beloved by Republicans is Ronald Reagan, and that’s involved a certain amount of myth-making. Nixon was a paranoid crook—and, in retrospect, more liberal than today’s Democrats; Gerald Ford was, well, Gerald Ford. The first Bush did that tax thing, and the second Bush did things like pass Medicare expansions, throw away a budget surplus, and expand executive power in ways that Republicans realized were alarming only when Obama took office. Since conservatism never fails—it can only be failed—none of these guys had much of a chance for long-term love.
You can see in Christie’s current style and substance how this cycle might play itself out again. Christie makes all the right people angry, which is his chief conservative qualification for office. It’s enough to get him elected, and enough to make his legacy to Republicans disposable after he leaves office. If history is any guide, it makes him the perfect man to be the next Republican president.