Chris Christie’s regret

He can’t stop talking about how ready he is to run for president in 2016

Published July 26, 2012 7:14PM (EDT)

Chris Christie has developed a habit that’s got to be a bit irksome to his party’s presumptive presidential nominee: expressing interest in the next presidential race – the one in which Mitt Romney hopes to be running as the incumbent.

Asked during a visit to the New Jersey shore on Wednesday about the 2016 contest, Christie dutifully replied that he hopes Romney beats Barack Obama this fall and claims the White House – then allowed that “if there’s an opportunity for me to serve in another capacity and I think I have something to add to the mix, I don’t think I’d back away from it.” This has resulted in an explosion of stories with headlines like this.

In his defense, Christie’s handling of the question was more politically deft this time than back in March, when he told Oprah Winfrey simply that “I’ll be much more ready four years from now” without even mentioning the possibility that Romney might be elected president this year. And it’s standard for prominent and ambitious figures in both parties to be quizzed about their potential interest in years-off presidential contests; there really is no magical answer to make the speculation stop (as Christie himself demonstrated last year).

But the language Christie has been using to talk about ’16 is interesting. When he toyed with jumping into the GOP race last fall, he was haunted by an earlier statement – from before the full-scale draft effort began – that he didn’t think he was ready to be president. Obviously, it would have been used relentlessly by his opponents if he’d run, although it’s hard to believe that alone kept Christie out. Still, his insistence that he’ll be “much more ready” in four years and that he wouldn’t “back away from it” if the chance is there suggests his old “I’m not ready” line is on his mind and, perhaps, that he regrets saying it.

A not unreasonable case can be made that Christie would have won the GOP nomination if he’d run this year. The party base’s appetite for a non-Romney candidate was broad and enduring, with Romney suffering embarrassing losses even when it became clear he’d be the nominee. That Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich ended up emerging as his chief primary season threats – and that each of them ended up winning state primaries – is testament to Romney’s profound weakness as a front-runner. What saved Romney is that no truly credible alternative ever emerged, one who could tap into the base’s desire for someone else while not unnerving the party’s “elites.” (The power of party elites to check the passions of the base was on display in the post-South Carolina destruction of Gingrich.)

On paper, Christie wasn’t everything the base was looking for, particularly on immigration. But stylistically, he connected perfectly with the right’s Obama-era anti-government passion – but not in a way that terrified party elites (unlike, say, Sarah Palin). The potential of a Christie candidacy was that the power of his personality (and the deficiency of his GOP rivals) would give the base an incentive to rationalize any of his ideological apostasies, and that elites would see him as a general election winner and encourage this.

We’ll never know if it would have worked, of course, but it’s hard to believe that Christie hasn’t had some moments of second-guessing. Which might explain why he seems a little more interested than the average White House prospect in making his future interest in running clear.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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