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Can Christie lead GOP back to White House?

by Peter Beaumont

The Observer

Since Chris Christie’s landslide re-election as governor of New Jersey earlier this month, which has seen him confirmed as an early favorite for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, the question of the precise nature of his political personality, and its appeal, has loomed as large as the man himself.

Christie’s achievement in winning 60 percent of the vote in a state won by Barack Obama in the presidential election has been underlined by the breadth of his vote. He attracted a far greater share than the Republican norm of Hispanic, black and women votes. And, since his win, both admirers and detractors have gone into high gear to dissect and explain the phenomenon of the former U.S. attorney and, as some see it, his “blunt charisma.”

Just days after his re-elections, Democratic officials were outlining how they planned to try to put the brakes on Christie’s momentum, not least by pointing out that, far from being a pragmatic “moderate,” he is a solid conservative in the Bush-Romney mold. Others, prominent among them Colm O’Comartun, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, have been more brutal. O’Comartun dismissed Christie as “personality-driven late-show entertainment” and a “vaudeville routine.”

What O’Comartun had in mind is not hard to guess — the same antics that so appalled Mitt Romney’s aides when they were vetting Christie (who they code named “Pufferfish”) for a potential vice presidential slot in Romney’s unsuccessful run against Obama. These antics include the videotaped footage of Christie’s pursuit, clasping an ice-cream, of a constituent who had heckled him down a seaside boardwalk.

It is not only questions about his temperament that have resurfaced, but others about his weight — despite a gastric band operation — and his health and professional career. The doubts that he is presidential material have come from myriad quarters, though many serve as an acknowledgement of how much he is feared by potential rivals. For those who see politics as a beauty pageant, Christie is “too abrasive.” For others, he is too Northeastern to appeal in the Southern and Midwestern states. For tea party members, he is too mainstream and not reliable enough on hot-button social issues.

All of which assumes that those aspiring to the highest office hold immutable positions or need to be in possession of a pleasant character to get to the White House. (It is worth noting here that neither Richard Nixon nor his presidential predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, was an emollient figure.) Most of the criticism misses a crucial point — one noted by political scientist Joseph Nye five years ago when considering Obama’s own appeal —which is that political charisma is at best an elusive notion, blunt or otherwise. And it is as much conferred on politicians by electorates hungry for change as intrinsic to a certain type of personality.

None of which answers the questions: why Christie and why now? Ironically, the “vaudeville” jibe is not completely wide of the mark for an assiduous, effective stump politician famous for caustic put-downs. These are often aimed at the public service union entitlements he claims have driven up local taxes, an approach he may struggle to replicate on a national stage. That his attack on public service entitlements has had traction is not simply a function of populist union-bashing but is rooted in the genuine problem in states such as New Jersey that have long struggled with the cost of its public workforce, not least its long-term problem funding pension obligations.

The reality, which Nye put his finger on half a decade ago, is that Christie’s emergence as a national player has converged with a number of trends and some pieces of good luck, not all of which will necessarily be long-lived. He benefited from a weak Democratic opponent, Barbara Buono, while his bipartisan embrace of Obama’s support for New Jersey in the wake of Superstorm Sandy appealed to those weary of polarized politics. Like Clinton and Reagan, he has been credited with being a formidably effective communicator, described as having “a preternatural gift for making the complex seem deceptively simple.” He has been a beneficiary, too, of the mood of public anger with the tea party, inspired by the shutdown of the federal government. He recently criticized “libertarian” wings of both political persuasions.

Attempting to explain Christie’s appeal, Samuel Goldman argued in the American Conservative this month that the governor’s style encompassed an almost “Machiavellian pragmatism,” not least on the issue of gay marriage, which Christie opposes.

“Christie knew quite well that his challenge to [New Jersey's] gay marriage bill was purely symbolic, since the liberal state supreme court was certain to reinstate the law. What’s more, Christie dropped his opposition as soon as he could credibly claim that the court had forced his hand.”

Noting that Christie’s approach was unpopular with “dedicated social conservatives,” Goldman, however, identified what may be the crucial point: that “symbolic conservatism is popular with more moderate voters, who want to express disapproval for gay marriage and abortion, but are uncomfortable with policies that seem intrusive or intolerant.”

And if an interesting comparison is being made by commentators on both the left and right, it is to Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Like Clinton, it has been said, Christie has prospered in what should be hostile territory.

As Rich Lowry at the conservative National Review wrote this month: “Christie’s implicit pitch to the national [Republicans] will probably be that he’s to Republicans in the 2010s what Bill Clinton was to the Democrats in the 1990s. In other words, he offers a different kind of politics that can potentially unlock the presidency after a period of national futility for his party.”

Lowry is not alone in arguing this. After Christie’s electoral victory, others were struck by the same analogy.

“There’s a historical precedent [for Christie]: Bill Clinton,” suggested Nate Cohn at the New Republic: “[Clinton] was ostensibly a ‘New Democrat’ even though he was pro-choice, supported higher taxes, a universal health care system, gun control and expanded rights for gays in the military.” Rather than abandon core elements of the Democratic agenda, Clinton softened the edges on a host of issues, including welfare. He also said that “abortion should be ‘rare’, even if it should remain legal.”

Born to working-class parents in Newark who moved in the late 1960s to the suburb of Livingston, Christie’s appeal is also rooted in something harder to put one’s finger on, what Benjamin Wallace-Wells calls the “precision of his cultural ventriloquism.” Straight-talking and grounded in his complaints, according to this assessment, he embodies a conservative, middle-class angst, far separated from the ideological abstractions of rivals such as Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul or Rep. Michele Bachmann.

He has grasped, too, what some of the political commentators have not — that politics is not a popularity contest. Instead, he has told an anecdote about his mother: “My mother said to me all the time, ‘Christopher, you’re going to have choices in your life between being loved and being respected. You should choose respected. Because if you’re respected, love can come. But seeking love without also being respected — well, that love doesn’t last.’ ”

Intriguingly, Christie’s appeal appears to work across genders despite the fact he has opposed abortion rights and was running against a female candidate, though polls have suggested he could lose a large section of that vote in a hypothetical presidential race against Hillary Rodham Clinton. That, however, was not always the case. Before Superstorm Sandy, Christie’s support among women trailed his support among men by almost 30 points. His handling of the crisis appears to have turned his problem with women constituents around.

But if his response to Sandy is what defined Christie in the wider public’s mind, it is also, paradoxically, his Achilles’ heel in his own party. In praising the emergency assistance New Jersey’s coastal towns received from Obama weeks before the general election, he infuriated some Republicans who saw his comments as tantamount to a betrayal, a distrust that might well play against him in key Republican primaries, such as Iowa.

Whether he will run for president, or can secure the nomination, remains to be seen. What is plain is the jolt his “blunt charisma” has supplied to a Republican mainstream that seemed, sometimes, in danger of irrelevance.