In his column comparing Chris Christie to Hillary Clinton as she agonized over whether to run for president in 2004, John Heilemann makes a strong point about a politician’s “moment,” but loses control of his analogy as he attempts to render a final judgment on Clinton’s ultimate decision. I think many are making a similar mistake with Christie. Heilemann writes:
Clinton weighed the possibility all the way into November. In the end, however, Hillary concluded it was just too soon for her to make a presidential run. That voters would punish her for breaking a campaign vow to serve her first Senate term in full. That 2004 was not, in fact, her time—2008 or 2012 would be. Clinton’s assessment was rational, conventional, and highly prudent. But then the big wheel of history turned and rendered it mistaken.
But the assumption that history rendered her decision not to run a mistake may be exactly backwards. The underlying theory seems to be that there is nothing to lose by running for president, or at least that the risks are worth it. This assumption has been plaguing the speculation surrounding Christie as well.
If Clinton had run in 2004, she probably would have lost. Heilemann says Clinton didn’t rule out a presidential campaign until November 2003. If that’s the case, had she declared then (and in all likelihood it would have been earlier if she wanted to run), she would have made her announcement 34 months after her husband left office.
She, too, was in the White House until January 2001. Like her husband, she was a divisive political figure. Unlike her husband, she wasn’t president; she lacked charisma; and she had one major attempt at policymaking, and no one needs to be reminded of the spectacular nature of that failure. She had not yet spent much time in the Senate nor sanded the edges of her personality.
Was she better than John Kerry? Probably. But how much does that say? On the other hand, her loss to Obama in 2008 was painful, but after a rough start she has become a quite capable secretary of state while many on the left (and on the right and in the center) have been forced to admit she would have made a better president than Obama. We’ll never know, but that’s probably to her advantage.
With Christie, there is much to lose by running for president and losing to Obama–or, far worse, losing the nomination fight. It will damage his re-election bid in New Jersey. It would probably put his reform agenda on hold during the election–a hold from which it may never resume.
It may be Christie’s moment. If he runs and wins, it will be a remarkable victory for the conservative movement. And he would certainly be serious about debt and spending. The upside is obvious–so obvious it might be obscuring the risk. In many ways, he seems the perfect candidate for this election. But it must be asked: What if he loses?