The perils of underestimating Christie

Why Chris Christie is a far more serious threat than you might think to win the GOP nod -- and the White House

Topics: Opening Shot, 2012 Elections,

The perils of underestimating ChristieFILE - In this Sept. 27, 2011 file photo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. More than a year out from Election Day, all sorts of Republicans, including Christie, are making a point of keeping themselves in the national spotlight, stoking speculation that they're positioning themselves as potential running mates for the eventual GOP presidential nominee. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)(Credit: AP)

First, the news: The leading newspaper in New Jersey reported late Thursday night that Chris Christie “is seriously rethinking his months of denials and may launch a campaign for the White House after all.”

This came at the end of a day that started with the New York Post (in a story written by a former Star-Ledger political reporter who is very well-sourced in Christie’s world) reporting that a number of GOP luminaries are leaning hard on Christie to run, and that his “mind-blowing” experience earlier this week at the Reagan Library — where a woman literally begged him to run, prompting a standing ovation from the crowd — had changed his thinking and spurred him to consider the race seriously. (Among those apparently urging Christie on: George W. Bush, the man whom Christie raised serious money for in 2000, earning him his career-making appointment as U.S. Attorney for New Jersey — and the Bush-bestowed nickname “Big Boy.”)

This hardly guarantees that Christie, who was in Louisiana on Thursday campaigning for Gov. Bobby Jindal, is going to join the field. But a serious shift has clearly taken place. Since the presidential chatter began all the way back in April 2010, Christie has adamantly maintained a “hell no” posture. Now he’s moved to “maybe.” And the pressure to go from there to “yes” is enormous. As former New Jersey Governor Richard Codey told Salon on Thursday, “When you’ve got Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and all those Republican bigwigs calling you, saying you’ve got to do it for the party, you’ve got to do it for the country — it’s intoxicating. A lot of people would get drunk off that.”

So it’s time to consider the very real possibility that Christie will actually run for president — something that should strike more fear than you might think into the hearts of his prospective GOP opponents and the Obama White House.

The obvious temptation is to say that Christie be making a gigantic and potentially career-killing mistake in doing so. After all, he’s not even halfway through his term; if he runs off to seek the White House now, it will arouse cries of home state abandonment — and if he comes back from a losing national campaign with his tail between his legs, it would be difficult, maybe even impossible, for him to win a second term as governor in 2013. In other words, a presidential campaign is probably an all-or-nothing gamble for Christie. And it’s to make the case that he’ll fall flat on his face a national GOP contest; just pick your favorite argument:

  • The grass is always greener syndrome: The idea here is that the GOP’s current desire for Christie is purely a function of its boredom with its existing candidates. He’ll never look better to Republicans than he does right now, and if he were to become a candidate, they’d quickly decide he’s just as flawed as the others and start yearning for another option all over again.
  • His secret liberal past: Christie was pro-choice in the mid-’90s, touted his support for gun control in his 2009 gubernatorial campaign, and publicly scoffed at the idea that illegal immigration was something his office should be concerned about when he was U.S. Attorney for New Jersey. He also appointed a Muslim judge. When this stuff gets a good airing, by the media and his opponents, conservatives will sour on Christie fast. Hey look — Rush Limbaugh is already taking shots at him!
  • The thin skin problem: He gets defensive easily and is quick to lash out, sometimes intemperately. There’s a benefit to this for Christie; it’s one of the reasons for all of those viral videos that conservatives (and even, on one occasion at least, liberals) love. But it also gets him in trouble — like when a 76-year-old female state senator got under his skin earlier this year and Christie told the media to “take the bat to her.” Imagine him saying that about a well-respected Republican who gets under his skin in a national race. As Codey told Salon on Thursday, “I mean, just one time during a debate if he goes off and says the wrong thing — and he’s certainly capable of that — he could be down the tubes.”
  • It’s just too late: We’re practically in October — and the Iowa caucuses are probably going to be in early January. Christie has no campaign organization, no established national donor base, no experience running outside New Jersey, and no idea what its like being at the epicenter of America’s 24-hour political news cycle day after day. Just look at the contrast between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry in the last three GOP debates: That’s the difference that experience on and preparation for the national stage makes. Oh, and the simple fact that it’s taken Christie this long to even think about running: It must mean his heart’s not fully in it, and you can’t be anything less than 110 percent committed to succeed in a national race.

All of this is logical enough, and it may well be that one (or more) of these factors proves to be Christie’s undoing if he does go forward. But I really wouldn’t be too sure.

There’s a tendency among national political observers to reduce Christie to a caricature of anger. But as anyone who watched his performance at the Reagan Library on Tuesday (the audience q&a part, not the generic speech) can attest, he’s an unusually magnetic communicator — feisty and belligerent at times, yes, but also capable of genuine wit and self-deprecation. And he’s a naturally gifted storyteller, effortlessly weaving answers to policy questions into gripping anecdotes. His turn at the Reagan Library was not an aberration. In off-the-cuff settings — town hall forums, debates, interviews — there may not be a better communicator in American politics today.

That’s why the “grass it always greener” argument probably doesn’t hold up. Sure, there’s truth to it — he’ll get knocked around in ways we can’t even imagine yet if he enters the race. But his appeal to Republicans right now is about a lot more than just the fact that he’s not Mitt or Rick. There’s a reason why so much buzz has built around Christie, and not (say) the other Republican who won a major governorship in 2009, Virginia’s Bob McDonnell. It’s the power of his magnetism. Republicans watch him in action and want to like him. Yes, it helps that Romney can’t seem to get more than 25 percent of Republicans to say they’re with him and that Perry is falling flat on his face. That definitely creates hunger for a new candidate. But go back and watch the video of the woman begging Christie to run on Tuesday and the crowd rising to its feet: It is a huge mistake to think of Christie as a mere stand-in for NOTA.

This is directly related to why his liberal past may not be a problem in a GOP race. What it comes down to is this: There are issues on which Christie is clearly vulnerable on the right, there are issues where Romney is clearly vulnerable on the right, and there are issues where Perry is clearly vulnerable on the right. You can argue that Perry is vulnerable on fewer issues, and that’s probably true, but the fact is that none of them are “pure” by the standards of the Obama-era right. The difference is salesmanship. Christie makes Republicans want to like him — and to then to rationalize their way to supporting him. Romney and Perry just don’t have this.

The thin skin argument is legitimate; Christie’s temper would be an absolute wild card and could end up derailing any campaign, maybe even during its rollout. And all of the issues relating to the late start he’d be getting are not irrelevant. But on the whole, there’s good reason to believe that Christie would be a very formidable candidate for the GOP nomination — dare I say it, maybe even the favorite.

The same is true for the general election. National Democrats who may be be tempted to see Christie as an easy mark would do well to consider the experience of their New Jersey counterparts in 2009. Until the very end, Democrats in the Garden State believed they had Christie beat — that they’d undermined him with lethal opposition research and tethered him to George W. Bush and the unpopular national GOP label. Even some liberal commentators outside the state sized Christie up as a poor candidate. They were wrong. Christie ended up winning by the second-largest margin for a Republican in the state since 1972 (granted, it was only 4.5 points — but hey, it’s a blue state). Much of this had to do with incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine’s unpopularity, but Christie ran a far better campaign — and exhibited better communication skills — than Democrats believed he was capable of.

The national dynamic could be similar in 2012, with Barack Obama as vulnerable across the country as Christie was in New Jersey. Not to beat a dead horse, but think again of Christie’s q&a at the Reagan Library; no imagine him doing that at a town hall debate with Obama. It’s a prospect that should worry Democrats.

Of course, this all could be an illusion. Christie might just announce in a day or two that he’s thought it over and really doesn’t want to run, and that will be that. For their own sakes, Perry, Romney and even Obama should probably hope that’s what happens.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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