Chris Christie didn't say he's running for president on Tuesday night, he didn't say he's thinking about running for president, and he didn't even say he might think about running for president. And yet the prospect of a Christie candidacy still threatens to haunt the current GOP field for the foreseeable future. If you want to understand why, just compare these two very different responses to the same question:
No. 1: "Short of suicide, I don't really know what I'd have to do to convince you people that I'm not running. I'm not running."
No. 2: "And so my answer to you is that I thank you for what you're saying and I take it in and I'm listening to every word that you're saying it, and I feel it too."
No. 1 was uttered in the New Jersey State House last November, one of Christie's adamantly colorful denials that he might seek the presidency in 2012. No. 2 is from Tuesday night, after he delivered an address on national policy at the Reagan Library (!) and a woman in the crowd literally begged him to run for president. In other words, Christie used to be far, far more eager to swat down presidential chatter than he now seems to be.
The question is whether it really means anything -- or if Christie just wants us to think it might mean something. To answer this, it may be helpful first to backtrack and remember exactly how it happened that a second-year governor ended up delivering one of the year's most widely-anticipated political speeches.
The story starts not long after Christie took over as New Jersey governor in 2010, when he began winning acclaim from national conservatives, who found themselves riveted by the blunt charisma he exhibited in YouTube videos and television clips. The post-Bush GOP was without an obvious leader, and the impressive communication skills Christie flashed marked him as someone to watch. There was even some faint talk that he might be a very, very darkhorse for the 2012 presidential race -- but this was generally dismissed out of hand. He was just months into his term; surely Republicans would have a roster of far more credible candidates to choose from.
Months passed, the midterm election came and went, and Republicans began focusing more intensely on 2012. A number of would-be candidates declined to run, leaving a field littered with no-shot fringe aspirants and Mitt Romney, whose presence hardly stirred much interest among the party base. Christie's name was again touted, this time more widely -- especially after New Jersey's Democratic legislature passed his public pension overhaul plan. He met with some donors but also issued comically blunt disavowals of interest. A health scare over the summer (asthma, it turned out) was taken as further proof Christie wouldn't run. Then Rick Perry became interested in the race, and suddenly it seemed like the GOP might have its answer: A candidate pure enough for the base but solid enough to pass muster with the establishment. Then Perry opened his mouth, and trouble came out. Some Republicans begged Paul Ryan to get in; he said no. Others again urged Christie; same answer. But Perry's problems got worse, much worse, and Republicans despaired: Obama's vulnerable and we're stuck choosing between Perry and Romney?!
That all brought us to Tuesday morning, which began with the political world absorbing the news that former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean, a man who's close to Christie, had told the National Review that Christie was now giving the presidential race "a lot of thought" -- this as Christie prepared to deliver his long-scheduled speech on national policy at the Reagan library. Speculation built, until Christie's brother Todd told the Star-Ledger later in the morning that Kean was off his rocker and that "I'm sure that he's not going to run." But then, by the afternoon, Christie's camp was spreading the word (anonymously, of course) to the media that Todd had actually gone too far -- that he'd "been too cold in saying absolutely not," as the New York Times reported it. Christie's speech was now just hours away and the speculation exploded again. C-Span decided to take his 9 p.m. address live and Fox News cut-in to "Hannity" to show some of it.
OK, that brings us to the actual speech, which was ... serviceable. At a fairly quick clip, Christie ran through an address that was heavy on platitudes and broad strokes (he condemned leaders who shield voters from "difficult truths" without explaining what any of those truths might be).
But he hasn't built his national reputation on his ability to read a speech; it's in off-the-cuff settings -- debates, town halls, interviews -- where his charisma is apparent. This was certainly true on Tuesday night. When he put the text down and opened the floor to questions, Christie came to life, and so did the room. You can read all of the details here, but the Cliff's Notes version is that Christie showcased the same natural ease and Jersey tough guy humor that have been at the heart of his YouTube hits. It was a far more commanding, authentic-feeling performance that Romney, Perry or any other Republican candidate -- or national Republican figure -- has managed to pull off. And it culminated with the aforementioned woman standing up and begging Christie to run for president for the sake of her children:
The immediate effect of Christie's response, and of his handling of his entire California trip, will be to intensify the White House chatter. He can't drag this on too long -- the filing deadline for Florida's primary is at the end of October, and from a practical standpoint he'd probably have to move a lot sooner than that. But until he either jumps in or reverts to making I'd-sooner-kill-myself-than-run declarations, Christie will hover over the GOP race. Simply put, he lived up to his billing on Tuesday night. The guy who held court at the Reagan library is an infinitely stronger, more compelling communicator than either Romney or Perry, and with the clock running out, Republicans now know that Christie really is their last, best hope to save them from having to nominate one of those other two. Christie has become to the 2012 GOP race what Mario Cuomo was to the 1992 Democratic contest.
Which brings us to the question of whether he's actually considering joining the race. Here are the realistic possibilities of what Tuesday night means, as I seem them:
- It's all a scam: Christie's level of interest in a '12 bid is the same as it's always been -- nonexistent. But he recognizes the unique potential of this moment and is cashing in, for his state party (note how many fundraisers for the New Jersey GOP he managed to cram into his trip West this week) and for himself (playing coy built suspense and resulted in a huge audience for Tuesday's speech -- and surely this will only help down the road, like maybe in 2016).
- It's an ego trip: He's still not going to run, partly because his wife is against it and partly because he fears the consequences of losing -- like the fact that he'd face cries of home state abandonment and likely lose the governorship in 2013. But his poll numbers in New Jersey are a little stronger now, giving him a little more wiggle room than he had a few months ago. Plus, he's a political animal -- so why not pretend to be a candidate for a week or two, bask in the attention and adoration that he's always dreamed of, then call it off before Romney and Perry (and others) tear him to shreds over his secret liberal past?
- It's an opportunity he never thought would exist: When the presidential chatter started, Christie was as sure as everyone else that his party would have many better options. So, given own shaky political standing in blue state New Jersey, it made all the sense in the world to adamantly deny interest in the race. And he really meant it too! But in the past few weeks, especially since Perry's dreadful debate performance, it's suddenly begun to dawn on him that he'd have a real shot at winning the nomination -- and, given the state of the economy, the presidency too. Not a great shot, mind you, but a far better one than he thought he'd have six months ago -- and maybe even a better one than he'd have in 2016. He still has plenty of doubts, and the all-or-nothing risk of a presidential campaign means that his governorship would essentially end the minute he entered the race -- no small consideration given that Christie loves being governor and spent a decade pursuing the office. So he probably won't do it. But you saw that woman begging him to run, right?
- It's just part of the master plan: All of the pieces are falling into place, just like he knew they would. Those over-the-top denials? The perfect way to show humility, and hardly a risk -- Republicans were always going to come back to him. There was just no way that Romney or Perry (or Thune or Barbour or Daniels) would ever to get it done for them, and the more Christie dug in his own heels, the more attractive he'd seem. This would build desire, which would eventually turn to panic, at which point Christie would finally relent just enough to attract unprecedented national interest for a speech in California, at which an average Republican voter would issue a dramatic, emotional plea for him to ride to the rescue of the party and the nation.
Personally, I find No. 3 the most logical, but some combination of No. 1 and No. 2 also makes some sense. Of course, there's be no guessing to do if he'd just used that suicide line instead.
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I was on MSNBC's "The Last Word" with Lawrence O'Donnell just before Christie's speech on Tuesday night. Here's the segment: