It has been a very interesting twelve months for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. As the Republican primaries heated up and one conservative after another rose and fell in popularity, if not electability, the GOP establishment began to panic and thrashed about looking for an alternative. First, they convinced a reluctant Jon Huntsman to enter the race — who promptly fell on his face in the first debate, ending his candidacy almost before it began. Then began the approach to a gaggle of moderate conservative governors and ex-governors, including a dalliance by Indiana’s chief executive Mitch Daniels and the Hail Mary pass to Jeb Bush — both of which failed.
While this was going on, Chris Christie was saving New Jersey from fiscal calamity and facing down the public unions with such pugnaciousness and adroit maneuvering that even jaded national political pundits were impressed. The trial balloons were released, the drumbeat began, and Christie himself began to entertain the idea of running.
Opposition from conservatives for a host of perceived transgressions, including appearing to like Muslims a little too much and gun grabbing, may or may not have given him pause. In the end, his decision was apparently based on the idea that he had too much work to do in New Jersey to make a run.
Instead, he became an enthusiastic backer of Mitt Romney, the eventual nominee, and became one of the most important campaign surrogates for the Romney team. His red meat-criticism of President Obama was music to the ears of most of the right. Christie skewered the president for “posing and preening” and told one Republican audience, “This is a guy who literally is walking around in a dark room trying to find the light switch of leadership.”
Just days before Hurricane Sandy hit his state, he told a huge crowd in Richmond, VA:
“If you don’t think you can change Washington from inside the White House, then let’s give you the plane ticket back to Chicago you have earned,” Gov. Christie said. “I mean that is a scary thing for the President of the United States to say, isn’t it?’
“It shows his arrogance,” he added, his fulmination growing increasingly bold. “If he really believes that, if he believes that, then what the hell is he doing asking for another four years?”
Even conservatives who opposed him for his stance on guns and immigration began to look seriously at him as a candidate who could stand up to the Democrats in open combat and carry the fight to Washington.
But eight days after he spoke in Richmond, Hurricane Sandy hit the Jersey Shore and Chris Christie’s mission — and his political calculations — changed dramatically. What happened? Why did the man who said the president couldn’t “find the light switch of leadership” suddenly turn around and less than a week before the presidential election literally embrace the incumbent?
We’ve all heard the speculation. He wanted to sabotage Romney so he would have a clear field in 2016 — a curious explanation given that for six months he savaged the president and did everything in his power to help elect the GOP candidate. Or, he had to play nice with Obama or the feds would have sabotaged him by slowing aid and supplies to his hard-hit state. Or, it was Christie being Christie — another one of those Republican “mavericks” that independents fall in love with.
Since his embrace of the president, Christie has harshly criticized Republicans for not voting on the Sandy relief bill, calling out Speaker Boehner by name and terming the hold-up “disgusting.” He scoffed at the notion of putting armed guards in schools, saying: “You don’t want to make this an armed camp for kids.” The national pundits have gone gaga over this apostasy, with Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank going so far as asking dreamily if Christie can “rescue” the GOP.
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.