Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Christie-mania

In a lengthy piece on Chris Christie filled with winks and nods to the left and more than a few unsubstantiated jibes (Christie, we are told, was previously a “political hack,” and it’s just the “sane” wing of the GOP that likes him), Jason Zengerie of New York magazine nevertheless provides an interesting peek inside Christie’s political operation and just a sliver of hope to his fans that he might still be persuaded to make a 2012 presidential run.

Why the excitement?

These are strange days for Republicans. After their historic midterm victories, they are seemingly ascendant, with George Will hailing 2010 as “conservatism’s best year in 30 years—since the election of Ronald Reagan.” And yet there is no Reagan-like figure to lead them. In Congress, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are Establishmentarians ill-suited to the fervor of the times. The Republicans who are currently angling to run for the White House in 2012—Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, John Thune, to name a few—inspire little enthusiasm. Sarah Palin, the one potential presidential candidate who does get Republican pulses racing, is such a polarizing figure that the party Establishment is terrified she’ll run. At the very moment that the GOP appears poised to return from its short sojourn in the political wilderness, the party is desperately searching for a leader. Which explains conservatives’ serious—and sudden—infatuation with Chris Christie.

That explains the search for someone, but why him?

He has set the tone, in part, by being “a strong governor who has opinions and is willing to express them,” he said. When I asked him about New Jersey senator Frank Lautenberg’s criticism of his decision to cancel the tunnel, Christie shot back, “All he knows how to do is blow hot air … so I don’t really care what Frank Lautenberg has to say about much of anything.” Anything? “I’m always willing to read something in the paper that he said, and if he makes sense, I’m happy to work with him on it. I haven’t found one yet.” Christie believes his aggressive approach sends a signal to everyone else in the state. “The tone I’m trying to set for New Jersey is: action. Less talk, more action. And I think that’s what I’m doing as governor, and I think we’ve gotten a lot of stuff done already because of that, because I’m pushing and pushing and pushing.” …

Christie’s combativeness has made him a popular figure with the tea party in a way that someone like Indiana governor Mitch Daniels—who’s fought some of the same fiscal battles in his state but with the mien of an accountant—can only dream of. More than anything, Christie fills the longing, currently felt in all corners of the GOP (and beyond), for a stern taskmaster. “People just want to be treated like adults,” Christie says. “They just want to be told the truth. They know we’re in tough times, and they’re willing to sacrifice. But they want shared sacrifice.”

Less well known is his ability to co-opt and work with key Democrats in the deep Blue State. (He’s ”cultivated strong relationships with the three most prominent Democratic power brokers currently not in jail.”)

The good news for Christie fans is that there are a few scraps suggesting that he hasn’t entirely closed the door on a 2012 run.  (“Christie’s actions aren’t those of someone who has ruled out a presidential bid.”) His staff’s YouTube videos, the trip to Iowa, and some whispers from his political confidantes are encouraging those in the GOP who are searching for Mr. Right.

But the premise underlying the piece is a bit off. The reason Christie has become a “star” is not because he’s captured the imagination of the “sane” wing of the party but because he transcends the divide (which is part real and part media-driven hype) between Tea Partiers and establishment Republicans. He combines serious governance with political theater. He’s got undeniable stage presence, but he’s also a serious budget wonk. He has no patience with political insiders, yet he’s learned to handle his opponents. And he’s become a master at disarming the liberal media without personal acrimony or a sense of victimhood.

But your reading glasses would have to be exceptionally rosy to see real evidence of a 2012 stealth campaign. The most his supporters can hope for is that the field of current contenders will prove underwhelming and that a serious movement to draft Christie will develop. But if the governor resists the entreaties of his fans, Republicans should remember that he became an overnight success thanks to a bunch of irresistible YouTube moments. Who’s to say that someone else couldn’t do the same?