Last week New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had a semi-disastrous week. Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard is ready to drop him from the list of credible contenders. There was the bobble over the vaccination issue, but Ferguson is more worried about the Christie persona: “The jets, the meals, the concerts, the parties with celebrity pop musicians — we have at last learned that Christie is neither a populist nor a plutocrat, but a man striving to live out the fantasies of a teenage boy.”
Monday, Christie nevertheless was in Iowa, still sounding like a presidential contender. The Des Moines Register was quick to note that in its latest poll “nearly half — 46 percent — of likely caucus goers see Christie as ‘too moderate.’ That was the highest ‘too moderate’ score in the poll.” The report also recounted recent troubles, “Christie has been in the news lately for a three-day trip to London, where he answered a question Monday about measles vaccines by saying his kids are vaccinated, but parents should have “some measure of choice in things as well.”
A story on Tuesday by the New York Times about luxury travel caught attention. And there have been rumblings about quashed grand jury indictments against Christie supporters. (The district attorney subsequently denied there was an “investigation” of the governor, but those nervous about other problems in Christie’s record are going to be rattled each time one of these stories shows up.)
So is Christie ’16 over before it has begun? Let’s say the assets for now are being overshadowed by the deficits. On the plus side, he’s been a fiscally conservative governor in a blue state, tackled the teacher’s union (although not as dramatically as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker did), and can be exceptionally engaging and rhetorically skillful.
The downsides, on the other hand, are piling up. Like Hillary Clinton, the rationale for his campaign seems to be largely based on his own personality. When pressed, he has not had much to say about immigration and he has yet to demonstrate a comfort-level with discussing foreign policy. And that personality that attracted attention originally in amusing YouTube scenes can be seen as overbearing and intemperate. Finally, concerns about the bridge issue or similar surprises and the precarious condition of the New Jersey pension system have scuffed up his resume.
None of these separately should be fatal, but the lack of presidential campaign readiness may be. Jeb Bush beat him to the punch in announcing consideration of a presidential run and has been tearing up the big donor fundraising circuit. Meanwhile, Christie has been upstaged by Walker, who’s shown himself to be substantive and also more passionate than previously believed. (Walker has also been stepping out more on foreign policy and is in London this week on a trade mission.)
Now it appears Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., may get into the race, despite Bush’s announcement. So there is another dynamic candidate with a donor network, this one with a firm grasp of foreign policy. In short, as quality candidates come into the field, Christie’s skills don’t seem all that special, while his deficits look even more significant.
Does this mean Christie can’t win? It might, but if he wants to remain relevant he'll need to turn things around quickly.
▪ First, if he wants to play in Iowa (Monday was his 12th trip) he may be one of those weeded out by the caucuses. It is one thing for a moderate New Jersey governor not to win or do well there, but it is quite another matter if he devotes considerable time and resources and comes up in low single digits, which is distinct possibility. In short, he should reconsider playing seriously in Iowa.
▪ Second, he should take a page from Jeb Bush’s playbook and start giving a series of big speeches about something. He needs to spell out an agenda that is distinctive and make the case for why he — rather than another governor, or a foreign-policy expert senator or an ex-governor with more years in office and more achievements — should be the nominee.
▪ And third, he must successfully deal with problems back home. The pension issue is unresolved, property taxes are still going up (but at a reduced rate) and his approval is underwater.
It is not clear whether he can do all that. And before he tries he needs to decide if he wants to take on all that and whether attending to his presidential campaign would make his New Jersey problems worse. It is a very crowded and impressive field (unlike 2012) with candidates who have plenty of time to prepare. Being better than all of them is a daunting task.
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