Friday, February 12, 2016

The Christie Campaign Suspension Bridge


“Sit down and shut up!”
— Chris Christie to a heckler, Belmar, N.J., October 2014

AND THEN there were two ... less. The field of Republican aspirants for the presidency thinned out on Wednesday. Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard, ended her long-shot campaign, realizing that with several out-of-the-money finishes in the contests so far, her prospects weren’t getting any better.

The other one was a long time coming.

When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie entered the race for the presidency last June, he did so as a man with monumental challenges before him. As governor of a state with outsize financial troubles, as a figure in a major transportational scandal, as a politician with limited national name recognition before his quixotic foray even started, Christie was the embodiment of the regional pol trying to go large on the national stage without a message large enough — or distinct enough from everyone else — to justify staying in.

He had his moments but they were too few and far between. On Wednesday, it all caught up to him. After the New Hampshire results were posted — Christie came in sixth in that state's primary with 7.4 percent of the vote — that was it. Flanked by family and campaign associates, Christie “suspended” his bid, pulling the plug on a campaign that was pretty much circling the drain from the start.

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The governor had opportunities at the national level to moderate his trademark blowhard outrage. He took the stage at the 2012 GOP National Convention, throwing red meat with the best of them, arousing the faithful with his deeply partisan, bowling-jacket politics. That was expected.

But Christie made the most of another opportunity, one that was harder to compartmentalize in the context of national politics. Hurricane Sandy devastated the Jersey shore that October, and the Pantone-red governor who dissed President Obama early and often found himself in the untenable position of supporting the president as the storm — a confluence of three separate weather systems at once — raged through the region.

“He has expedited the designation of New Jersey as a major disaster area,” Christie said after Sandy hit. “The president has been outstanding on this, and so have the folks at FEMA. … The president has been all over this and he deserves great credit,” Christie said. “It’s been very good working with the president and his administration.”

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THAT WAS the same Chris Christie who, at an Oct. 19, 2012, Romney rally in Virginia, said, “the president doesn’t know how to lead. … He’s like a man wandering around in a dark room, hands up against the wall, clutching for the light switch of leadership and he just can’t find it ...”

After Sandy, of course, it was back to business as usual. For Christie, business as usual meant the pursuit — casual at first, serious later on — of the presidency. That takes money, money Christie never really generated. Politico reports that “[f]undraising was never a strong point for Christie ... In the fourth quarter of 2015, Christie raised only $4.2 million and ended up with roughly $1 million cash on hand. By comparison, in the first three weeks of January alone, Christie faced $5.2 million worth of attacks ads, according to FEC data.”

But it really wasn’t about campaign money anyway. There was never a compelling reason to vote for Christie because, end of the day, there was no compelling reason for Christie to run in the first place. What he brought to the table was always duplicated by other candidates with more money, a more palatable message (or at least a more palatable delivery) and fewer problems at home to be embarrassed by.

And his meme of brusque, argumentative Joisey plain-speaking was eclipsed by the loudmouth from Queens, the billionaire attention addict who’s now the party’s frontrunner. The message sent by the voters in every primary and caucus Christie entered was basically the same as the one Christie sent to a Belmar heckler who dared to challenge the governor at a post-Sandy press conference: “Sit down and shut up!”

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FRANKLY, IT’S hard to summon a lot of sympathy for the Jersey mauler.

Confrontation and humiliation have been so much a part of his public persona, his shtick, for so long, it’s difficult to recall a time when they weren’t. That persona (a distillation of the “Jersey way,” he tried to tell us more than once) was something he hoped to export nationally.

But with outrage as a staple good for Republicans this campaign season, it was a case of coals to Newcastle. Flintiness? Mercurial style? An articulation of the popular rage? “Go sell angry someplace else,” the country told him. “We’re all full up here.”

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Christie will have his hands full taking care of state business for the remaining 710 days of his governorship. Like navigating the record nine credit rating downgrades on more than $32 billion in state bonds, highlighting what Moody’s called “"weak financial position and large structural imbalance, primarily related to continued pension contribution shortfalls.”

Like the possible exodus of more than 2 million people from the Garden State, along with a loss of $18 billion in income, according to the state’s Business and Industry Association, and as reported by NJ.com. Like job approval ratings that have dropped into the 30th percentile.

Christie due’s for some down time at home. NJ.com reported that Christie spent somewhere between 52 percent and 72 percent of 2015 on the road, outside of New Jersey, as he pursued the Republican nomination he wasn’t going to win. Now? He can sleep in his own bed. He can make his way back to Trenton via the George Washington Bridge.

His campaign’s suspension will be the bridge between his lofty political aspirations and the gritty political reality he couldn’t escape. The presidency needn’t elude him forever. But one hopes that next time, like his fellow presidential-candidate asterisk, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Christie will have a real reason for running, and carve out a real distinction between him and every other angry Republican on the campaign trail.

Image credits: Christie: Reuters. Christie and President Obama: MSNBC screengrab. Christie and Scott Walker: Aristide Economopoulos/NJ Advance Media for NJ.com.

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