I’m in some sympathy with those who want New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to enter the Republican presidential race, for the same reason I was hoping Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, and Paul Ryan would. We’re facing a crucial moment, and a crucial election, in the life of our country, and we should want the pool of candidates to include the finest lawmakers and politicians the party has to offer. And then they could battle it out.
At the same time, there is a tendency among some commentators (myself included) to view those who have not entered the field as figures of extraordinary and enduring strength and skill. It often seems that way, right up to the moment when a candidate enters the race, at which point they immediately become diminished, flawed, and mortal. It’s very nearly inevitable, since candidates for president face tremendous scrutiny. Every word they have publicly (and sometimes privately) uttered and every word they have publicly (and sometimes privately) written is placed under a microscope. Past associations, from pastors to siblings, are considered fair game. Those who emerge as front-runners immediately become the object of fierce attacks by other candidates. As a result, the people who looked so impressive when they were on the sidelines are pounded, poked, prodded, dented, and clubbed. That would happen to Governor Christie if he jumped in, just as it would have happened to Messrs. Bush, Daniels, and Ryan.
That doesn’t mean, by the way, any of those individuals wouldn’t have acquitted themselves well. My guess is each of them would have. But the truth is we just don’t know, since it’s impossible to anticipate how well a politician, even an experienced politician, will handle the pressure of running for president. Look at how rocky of a launch Newt Gingrich experienced, despite the fact he has been a visible public figure for decades. Even candidates who run successful campaigns don’t emerge from the contest unscathed. The reason is running for president is really hard – far harder than running for governor or for Congress. And entering the race late in the day, without an operation in place, makes it triply challenging.
I’d add one final point: whatever defects the current crop of GOP candidates have (and this applies to Democrats as well), these individuals were willing to enter the arena and subject themselves to a punishing nominating process. I’m not comfortable criticizing those who have decided not to enter a presidential race and turn their lives, and the lives of their families, upside down and inside out. Sometimes it’s the right, and even the admirable, decision. But I do think the individuals who have stepped forward and placed themselves squarely in the line of fire deserve a tip of the hat – and maybe, from time to time, a measure of grace and understanding. It’s quite easy for those of us on the sidelines to critique their performances and highlight their mistakes and to pretend we’d do much better if it were only us up on the stage.
The truth is most of us wouldn’t do all that well if we were on the hot seat. We’d answer questions inartfully. We might lose focus in the midst of speaking and cite data that’s wrong or misleading. We would probably give speeches, at least now and then, that are flat. And we would undoubtedly make mistakes that are embarrassing. So from time to time, it’s worth reminding ourselves that offering advice from a safe distance, from behind a keyboard or a microphone or in front of a camera, is a lot easier than actually running for high public office.