While there are still years to go till the next presidential election, J. BROOKS SPECTOR ponders the meaning and making of Chris Christie, New Jersey Governor, a man who may well be the Republican candidate in three years’ time.
William Howard Taft was the most substantial man to ever inhabit the White House – if one thinks of substance in terms of weightiness, mass, kilograms, pounds and displacement. On that latter point, Taft was such a big guy the White House installed a more spacious bathtub to accommodate the incoming president. Almost every other chief executive has gone to great lengths to demonstrate interest in a sport or two and a more general enthusiasm for a physically active life – in addition to the job. Even Franklin Roosevelt, a man incapacitated by polio, swam – for therapeutic reasons as well as exercise. Politically engaged Americans are already beginning to contemplate the possibilities of electing a man who would share more with President Taft (and Tony Soprano’s) physique than any other previous chief executive.
In the wake of the recent Republican fiasco with the government shutdown and debt ceiling votes, many worried GOP eyes are already looking for a new way forward for their party. This is particularly true in the wake of the newest polling that should be giving the Republicans a serious case of the blues.
The blues, as in with pretty much every demographic in the country save for that dyed-in-the-wool, till-death-do-us-part, Barack Obama-is-a-Muslim-fundamentalist-anti-Christ-Kenyan-communist demographic, that is. A near-universal judgment, now, is that the Republicans screwed up this month, big time. And this is setting up a slow moving collision between the Tea Party and the Republican establishment – leading up to the 2014 midterm election, sure, but even more importantly, for the presidential election of 2016.
The right-hand side of the party, verging deeply into Tea Party territory as well, is getting rather crowded with potential candidates, what with people like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Congressman Paul Ryan, Texas, Florida and Kentucky Senators Ted Cruz. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, along with a couple of others making potential candidate-like noises – or at least having boisterous supporters making the noises for them. By contrast, the so-called moderate, establishment wing of the party has begun to cast around for a candidate they could begin to coalesce behind so as to help avoid the kind of intra-party blood-letting in the run-up to Mitt Romney’s failed candidacy in 2012 (or John McCain’s similar success four years before Romney).
One name now rising to the top of that heap is Chris Christie. Christie is now cruising to an expected re-election victory as New Jersey’s governor. One curiosity of Christie’s re-election campaign for the governorship has been the recent endorsement he received from the Trenton Star-Ledger newspaper. New Jersey’s media market is primarily divided between the major New York City and Philadelphia dailies, TV and radio stations, but there are several locally politically influential papers such the one in the state capital of Trenton.
The Star-Ledger concluded in its almost bizarre endorsement, its “endorsement of Christie comes with the hope that Democrats hold control of the Legislature to contain his conservative instincts. Gov. Chris Christie is the most remarkable political talent America has seen since Bill Clinton. If you haven’t witnessed his performance at a town hall meeting yet, make a point of it. You will come away convinced there is a sensible middle ground in America after all.”
But, after laying out such positives, and after inventorying and degrading some of his claimed successes, they added, “Balance that against his measurable failures, and you have to conclude he is much better at politics than he is at governing. The property tax burden has grown sharply on his watch. He is hostile to low-income families, raising their tax burden and sabotaging efforts to build affordable housing. He’s been a catastrophe on the environment, draining $1 billion from clean energy funds and calling a cease-fire in the state’s fight against climate change. The governor’s claim to have fixed the state’s budget is fraudulent. New Jersey’s credit rating has dropped during his term, reflecting Wall Street’s judgment that he has dug the hole even deeper. He has no plan to finance transit projects and open space purchases now that he has nearly drained the dedicated funds he inherited from Gov. Jon Corzine.”
Given all of these flaws and still the endorsement, the paper’s editors must really have a low estimation of his Democratic opponent, State Senator Barbara Buono. And, if the polling is even close, so will the state’s electorate.
An attorney, Christie has risen through the ranks of local government in the northern part of the state, as well as in periods of private practice, and then as the federal government’s district attorney for the state of New Jersey during Republican administrations. He developed a reputation as a crusading (and rather publicity hungry) attorney who laid waste to bent politicians (mainly Democrats) and mob corruption, Christie began attracting increasing national attention four years ago following his first election as governor.
Christie’s remaking of his political posture and positioning, in place of his image as simply a hard-edged Republican law enforcer, has been on the go for a while, as 2016 potentially and tantalizingly swims into view. In 2012, less than two weeks before the US presidential election, Chris Christie, as a Republican governor, gave President Barack Obama (the Democratic candidate for president, remember) a widely reported public embrace at the hurricane-damaged Jersey shore, for the federal government’s speedy response to the harms inflicted to the New Jersey seashore by Hurricane Sandy. The New Jersey seashore is a major element of the New Jersey economy, with its string of resorts from Cape May on the southern tip of the state to Sandy Hook near New York City. It includes the gambling resort of Atlantic City, as well as Bruce Springsteen’s hometown of Long Branch and Asbury Park where “The Boss” got his early musical successes.
Some observers credit this last-minute embrace of Obama by a stalwart Republican politician to helping put the president firmly back on a re-election trajectory in several key Northeastern states. Many Republicans were outraged, but Christie took the pragmatic view the Obama administration was coming to the rescue of Christie’s state and he deserved to be thanked for his efforts. And it has now helped position him with a growing number of political activists that here, finally, is a Republican from a genuine blue state who can win convincingly in such a Democratic enclave – and that he will have the moxie to do that in other blue states as well – or at least make a real run at doing so. All of this is in contrast to virtually any other potential Republican on the horizon.
Some months ago, too, Christie went into the hospital – to undergo the bellyband surgical procedure that would make him more svelte, or at least less Tony Soprano-esque. Any moment now it seems, we’re going to be seeing pictures of Christie working out or jogging in a loose-fitting, sweaty tracksuit. Even if he doesn’t wear a big smile while jogging through a downtown Hoboken neighbourhood before stopping off (Big Dawg Bill Clinton-style) for a life-affirming bowl of spaghetti with clam sauce, BBQ ribs, Thai noodles or chilli con carne. Christie will work hard at looking like he enjoys a bit of physical effort while pressing the flesh of potential supporters and enjoying the cuisine. Yes, it is true, Hoboken is not as fancy as midtown Manhattan, across the Hudson River, but it definitely offers much better views (and some lower rents, still) of Manhattan’s iconic cityscape than those seen from New York City, looking towards Hoboken!
In the past couple of days, Christie took the next step in creating his new persona as a politician suitable for attracting support from blue state Democrats (although just as thoroughly setting Tea Party teeth grinding audibly) by agreeing to end his objections to court rulings favouring New Jersey approval of single sex marriages. Given the fact that the federal Supreme Court has already ruled in two separate cases in support of gay marriage, withdrawing New Jersey appeals would seem to have been following the incoming tide of history. But, regardless, this decision will be a red flag to conservative “values” voters in almost every Republican presidential primary. Simultaneously, however, this will also position Christie to the leftwards side on that social values axis in comparison to almost any other conceivable, plausible Republican candidate – even as Christie positions himself ever more firmly as a solid establishment Republican in almost every other thematic area.
As political reporter Aaron Blake commented in the Washington Post, “On Monday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) took the exact opposite approach to the same-sex marriage debate in his state. Rather than continue with an appeal to a lower court’s decision legalizing gay marriage, Christie acknowledged the case was all but lost and that his administration wouldn’t pursue a lost cause in the state Supreme Court. The decision paved the way for full legalization of gay marriage in New Jersey – which is notable in and of itself, given Christie’s potential 2016 presidential hopes. But, perhaps as importantly, it also sets up a potentially massive contrast in governing philosophies in the 2016 race, between Christie and the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who led the Defund Obamacare effort…. Should Christie run in 2016, his decision to drop the gay-marriage appeal sets the stage not only for a debate about social issues, but also about broader governing philosophies and the party’s strategic path forward.”
Of course not everyone has been enthusiastic about Christie’s evolution – perhaps most surprisingly in some more liberal circles. Andrew Rosenthal in the New York Times argued, for example, “Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey has tried on a lot of costumes in the endless prequel to a presumed run for president in 2016. He’s styled himself as another Ronald Reagan, folksy (in a cruder, New Jersey way); a John McCain, blunt and plainspoken; a technocrat like Mitt Romney; even a ‘uniter’ like George W. Bush. His newest model is Rudy Giuliani, a spectacular failure at running for president whose sentences Vice President Joe Biden once said consisted of ‘a noun, a verb and 9/11.’ ”
In its first evaluation of this decision as it reflects on the upcoming election in 2016, the AP argued Christie’s change of position “delighted gay rights activists and could enhance Christie’s appeal to independents and moderates of both parties. But it angered members of the GOP’s conservative wing, which already distrusts Christie and wields outsized influence in some state primaries.” And the Atlantic explained, “Most of the other Republicans in statehouses and the Capitol are being pulled the other direction, by the monotonous draw of Tea Party conservativism. Christie’s well positioned for November 2016 — if he can get past January 2016 first. By now, Christie is the face of the left-most pole of the Republican party.” But maybe this is all part of the master plan.
Looking forward into his political future, Christie’s first task will be to demonstrate a solid record as New Jersey’s governor, as a man who led the state to a surging economic recovery as the country slowly recovers all the lost ground from the 2008-9 financial crisis. That will help unlock the campaign (and pre-campaign) funding from the country’s establishment business community, many of whom live in and around New Jersey’s lusher, greener suburbs.
Then, Christie will also have to move out across the country, speaking to conventions, business associations and selected party activist meetings (eschewing Tea Party parties) to bump up his broader public profile across the nation, explaining his personal narrative and political vision. This will have to happen even as he simultaneously builds a strong critique of the Obama administration and the Democrats’ putative 2016 candidate – Hillary Rodham Clinton. And at the same time he is doing this, against all those other Republican possibilities, he is also going to have to demonstrate that every other potential Republican candidate – Tea Party favourites as well as any others – has such irredeemable flaws that, by contrast to him, they will be unable to carry any of those blue states such as New York, New Jersey, New England, Maryland, the West Coast including California, and some of the Midwest and Rocky Mountain states like Illinois and Colorado in the actual presidential election.
And despite all the stress such a multiplicity of tasks will bring down upon him, he is also going to have to keep that weight down so that those William Howard Taft and Tony Soprano allusions don’t start rising up to mock him on the innumerable television political talk shows, in political cartoons – or in the social media universe at the hands of those Tea Party believers in the one true faith. DM
Photo: Governor Chris Christie takes questions from the media following an announcement event about more funding to the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, September 3, 2013. Christie is the Republican front-runner for the November 5, 2013 governors’ election. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
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