Commentary Magazine

The Paths of Christie and Booker Diverge

Newark Mayor Cory Booker has all but confirmed that he is planning to replace Frank Lautenberg in the Senate in 2014 rather than challenge Governor Chris Christie next year. Though many have suspected Booker would take this route all along, he seemed to be sending up a trial balloon in the last couple of months to gauge his chances against Christie. The verdict was nearly unanimous: Booker was far weaker than he thought, and Christie was far stronger than anyone had expected.

On Christie’s side, there is no question now that his embrace of President Obama during the fallout and recovery from Hurricane Sandy was a boon to his approval numbers in the state. It rankled Republicans around the country, but it rallied New Jerseyans. It also earned him plaudits from a rare corner for a conservative: the entertainment industry. Christie got a shoutout from his hero, Bruce Springsteen, and from Steven Spielberg, who called Christie his new hero. In the latest Fairleigh Dickinson poll, even a majority of registered Democrats approved of Christie. He capped off his good run with an endorsement from a private-sector union that endorsed Christie’s Democratic opponent in 2009, Jon Corzine.

Things have gone in the other direction for Booker. Last month I wrote about Booker’s addiction to Twitter and self-promotion and how it was starting diminish the seriousness of his work in Newark. Bethany followed up with a post about the silliness of Booker’s food stamp challenge, which demonstrated that Booker both did not understand the nature of the food stamp program and was allowing his competitive nature to get the better of him by daring his social media antagonists to do things he himself had proclaimed unhealthy or dangerous.

After that, other publications, including the New York Times, wrote their own (devastating) versions of the story. The upshot was that political observers believed, in the words of the Times, that Booker “is better suited to speechmaking in Washington than to governing a state.” And those were the Democrats, according to the Times.

For Booker, the Senate is not a bad consolation prize. He can gain valuable experience without having to fight too hard for his seat. (Just ask Bob Menendez how difficult it is for a Democrat to be dislodged from either of those seats.) From there, Booker can run for governor at a later time if he chooses, or he can remain in the Senate. Either way, it will raise his national profile and stop him from getting caught up in the kind of political stunts he’s been engaging in lately.

For Christie, the future is a bit tougher to predict. No Republican has an easy reelection campaign in New Jersey, no matter how strong Christie’s post-Sandy poll numbers–which even he acknowledged will come back down to earth–have looked. And if he does intend to run for president in 2016, he may find Republican primary voters still interested in punishing him for his embrace of Obama–especially if there’s a crowded field of conservatives in the race. Over at the Hill, Christian Heinze notes that Christie’s favorability ratings among Republicans and Democrats are fairly close, but others, like Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal, earn high marks from Republicans without those suspicious-looking Democratic approval numbers to go along with them:

That’s not to say there should be a huge gap for a candidate, but ever since his Obama snuggle, Christie has seen a dip in his favorable ratings with Republicans, and drifting into McCain-land, circa 2000, isn’t going to be helpful for him in a ’16 primary — no matter how the press would lionize him.

Yes, first things first — he needs to win his reelection. But at some point, he’s going to have to start rubbing Spielberg the wrong way to get the GOP base back in his pocket.

Christie would have plenty of time and plenty of ammunition with which to do so. Reining in the public-sector unions, the way Christie has, is more impressive in New Jersey than in states with GOP-majority legislatures like Wisconsin and Michigan. Christie’s a budget-balancing tax cutter, which will make budget hawks happy. And since he is a social conservative, he will not have the baggage that other northeastern Republicans, like Mitt Romney, are often saddled with in GOP primary contests.

And there’s one more argument he can make. Democrats have a voter registration advantage of over 700,000 in New Jersey, yet the Democrats’ best and brightest still don’t want to run against him. Just imagine, Christie might say, what he could do in a fair fight.

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