Chris Christie's Long Game

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.