Any explanation for Christie’s heretical behavior necessarily takes into account the idea that he is thinking seriously of running for president in 2016. If that’s true — and Christie himself has said he will be “more ready” to run in 2016 — the governor will obviously wish to give himself the best opportunity for success. What will the country look like in 2016? What will politics look like? How best can Christie position himself to take advantage of the trends and historical forces that will shape the future?
Political crystal balls are notoriously cloudy. But recent history would suggest that those who plan the best and are best able to predict the lay of the land three or four years down the road end up winners. In 1988, Bill Clinton was almost exactly where Christie is today. Mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, Clinton declined to run and gave the opening night address at the Democratic convention — a speech panned for being too long, just as Christie’s was criticized for being too self-aggrandizing. Besides, the liberal tide was only just beginning to ebb, as the Democrats nominated Massachusetts liberal Michael Dukakis. Indeed, Clinton’s personae as a Democratic moderate would not have survived the primaries.
But Clinton knew his time would come and worked tirelessly to campaign for Democrats and to strengthen the Democratic Leadership Council — the now defunct moderate group of Democrats — while positioning himself to run as an electable Democrat from the south in 1992.
In 1996, George Bush wasn’t on anyone’s radar as a presidential candidate. But he had a plan and correctly gauged the growing power of the social right, became their champion, and won the nomination and presidency with their help.
In 2004, a candidate for the senate from Illinois wowed the Democratic convention with a keynote address that answered a hunger in us to put our divisions aside and embrace bipartisanship. But that, as we were to discover later, was just atmospherics. The real vision of Barack Obama lay in his correctly judging the changed demographics of the electorate and assembling a surprising coalition of the young, minorities, professionals, and women to take advantage of John McCain’s haplessness and win a convincing victory. The spadework for Obama’s eventual triumph began shortly after he was elected senator, as he began organizing in Iowa and other early battlegrounds in order to ambush Hillary Clinton.
Obama, Clinton, and Bush won because they anticipated correctly the temper of the times years before anyone else. Might Christie be playing a similar long game? Is the electorate going to look vastly different four years from now, and is Christie positioning himself to take advantage?
Much will depend on what happens in Washington the next two years. If the president delivers on his promise not to negotiate with Republicans over the debt ceiling, it is likely that eventually, the country will be statutorily unable to borrow any more money and at least a partial shutdown of the government will ensue. The markets will go crazy and there is a good chance that the United States will plunge back into a recession.
Who will get blamed? A recent Rasmussen poll shows only 30% with a favorable impression of the tea party. While not alone in their opposition to raising the debt ceiling, the tea party is easily the most visible faction and it is likely that blowing up the economy — regardless of whether the reason is good or not — will not sit well with voters.
The “hell no” caucus in the House may become the most toxic political entity in the country by 2014. The GOP base might not care and will seek to nominate a Rubio or another of their heroes for 2016. But with the Republican brand losing ground to Democrats, will a “genuine” conservative have any better luck than Romney did in 2012?
Christie may be betting that his brand of independent conservatism, along with his outsized personality and reputation as a fighter, might be just what the GOP voter is looking for in 2016. Everything he has done in the last two months indicates that he wants to distance himself from the take-no-prisoners House Republican caucus and establish a separate and distinct identity that would play well with an electorate exhausted by the petty ideological quarrels on Capitol Hill and looking for a problem solver who wouldn’t mind bashing a few heads together to accomplish something.
Time will tell if he has read the political tea leaves correctly.