Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Chris Christie, man of his word

The current Republican field of nightmares for candidates, and the lackluster response from the rank and file about those candidates, has created what nature and the Republican leadership abhor: a vacuum. Nature resolves its encounters with vacuum very well, thanks much. How well Republicans handle such matters remains to be seen.

The GOP has hung out the Savior Wanted sign for months, The party’s leadership and its enablers had been deeply hoping for a knight from Jersey to come to the rescue as its latest presidential contender. But when push really came to shove, Christopher James Christie was a man of his word. The word is No.

The name of the streetwise, refreshingly plain-spoken Republican governor of New Jersey has been floated with more and more desperation in recent months as a candidate in the 2012 derby. But Christie spoke his own truth to power today, when he went before the media and repeated what he'd been saying all along, to anyone who'd listen, which is to say to anyone who was really paying attention. “In the end, what I've always felt was the right decision remains the right decision today: now is not my time. I have a commitment to New Jersey that I simply will not abandon," Christie said in a news conference in Trenton.

“For months, I've been adamant about the fact that I would not run for president,” he said. “For me, the answer was never anything but ‘no.’ ...”

“So, New Jersey, whether you like it or not, you're stuck with me.”

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The punditburo hard by the Beltway tried to find an underlying motive: Christie was really laying in the cut for a shot at the vice presidency, or a Cabinet-level post in the next Republican administration. But given Christie’s plain-spoken style, and the repeated denials about interest in the Oval Office going back to 2010, it’s becoming clear to the GOP power brokers (who want an end to drama) and the media (which wants no end to drama) that Christie’s apparent self-awareness was no fluke. He’s dancing with the one what brung him to the party.

Some in the GOP have accepted it, however reluctantly. “You can wiggle around a lot of things, but that kind of ‘I’m not up for it’ statement, that’s a killer, especially when that's the main attack on Obama,” a GOP operative told the New York Daily News.

And at least one prominent political analyst observed that Christie would have had his work cut out for him convincing the more adamantine members of the GOP that he could be trusted to keep the faith despite a reputation as a moderate willing to negotiate with the other side.

“Few Republicans outside New Jersey recognize that he has compromised often with the Democrats in the legislature, has moderate positions on gun control and climate change,” said University of Virginia political guru Larry Sabato, to the Daily News.

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Quiet as kept, one of the real but unspoken reasons Christie’s bowed out has less to do with him than it has to do with the accidental perceptual ammunition he would have provided the Democrats, even if he thought he was ready. Unspoken today was Christie’s clear understanding of the optics of the situation.

Christie has been New Jersey’s governor since Jan. 19, 2010, less than two years ago. For him to bail out of his job in Trenton now and run for the presidency would be all but begging the media and his political opponents to compare him to Sarah Palin, who resigned her gig as governor of Alaska after two years and seven months, only to eventually seek the vice presidency with John McCain in 2008.

There’s enough difference between their two scenarios to rebut a head-to-head comparison, of course, but the Two Years & Gone meme would have stuck to Christie — and the Republican Party that sang his praises.

Another reason was more personal. Gov. Christie is, charitably speaking, not a small man. Certainly tipping the scales at more than 250 pounds (The New Republic’s Timothy Noah recently crowd-sourced his weight at 334 pounds), the governor had already started to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous comments in the media. One report said a Christie campaign would “cannonball” the current field — an unfortunate reference to the thing that the larger kids do at swimming pools everywhere, jumping into the water in such a forceful, big-displacement way as to drench everyone and everything around them.

Among other factors affecting his decision, Christie decided he didn’t need a year of fat-guy jokes on the campaign trail to pull him off message, cheap cracks that would detract from whatever his platform and policy proposals might have been.

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Christie looked hard at the current crop of Republican hopefuls and decided that, no matter how strong his candidacy might have been, his profile would be compromised by the size of the current field and its wild philosophical range. Why be just another flavor in the Baskin-Robbins campaign of 2012?

And finally, Gov. Christie no doubt came to an intelligent conclusion about his political future, one that presupposes he has a political future beyond 2012. The governor surely concluded that, if he’s the subject of consideration for the presidency now, when he’s not prepared to run, his bona fides for making a White House bid shouldn’t be any less credible in 2016, when he’ll have years more experience under his belt.

The GOP is famous for second chances; Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan both got second bites of the apple. Party loyalty, a credible profile and a base of support have helped Republicans into the White House after navigating from relative obscurity to being central to the national political conversation. There’s no reason Chris Christie can’t do the same thing.

His kind of political self-possession ought to be something the Republicans should cultivate. For all his current state of unreadiness, despite his politically moderate inclinations (or maybe because of them), Chris Christie could be a future, if not the future, of the Republican Party.

The GOP’s future shouldn’t necessarily be measured by how it treats candidates when it needs them, but how receptive the GOP is to presidential prospects when it thinks it doesn’t need them.

Image credits: Christie top: Via Mediaite. Christie middle: Luigi Novi, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. Palin: David Shankbone, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

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