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Can Christie Be the Republican Bill Clinton?
His presidential ambitions were pretty obvious Tuesday night.

Governor Christie votes in Mendham, N.J., on November 5.

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Rich Lowry

Chris Christie couldn’t have been any more obvious about his 2016 intentions if he had begun his victory speech Tuesday with the words “My fellow Americans” and ended it with a balloon drop.

He offered New Jersey as an example for national healing. “Tonight,” he said, “a dispirited America, angry with their dysfunctional government in Washington, looks to New Jersey to say, ‘Is what I think’s happening really happening? Are people really coming together?’”

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Trenton, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

None of this was subtle, but Christie had certainly earned it. Almost every decision he’s made — sometimes shamelessly so — has been geared to making the rubble bounce in his reelection and then using his crushing victory as a credential in an incipient national campaign. He succeeded brilliantly on his own terms.

In a state President Barack Obama won by 17 points in 2012, Christie won 60 percent overall. He won Latinos outright and took 21 percent of the black vote. He won women and men. He won high-school graduates and people with advanced degrees. He won people making more than $200,000 and people making less than $50,000.

These numbers are eye-popping. If they were automatically transferable to the national stage, Hillary Clinton would have to give it up and content herself with giving $200,000 speeches for Goldman Sachs forevermore. But they aren’t.

As Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center points out, essentially uncontested races against badly overmatched opponents aren’t a predictor of anything. William Weld won 70 percent of the vote and every county in Massachusetts in his 1994 re-election as governor, then lost by seven points to John Kerry in a 1996 Senate race in which the map of Massachusetts snapped back to its natural state.

Granted, getting into a position where you can run essentially uncontested against a badly overmatched opponent in a major race is an achievement in itself.

Christie’s implicit pitch to the national GOP 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.

Like Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas in the 1980s, Christie is operating on hostile partisan and cultural territory, and managing to thrive by co-opting or neutralizing natural enemies.

Like the “explainer-in-chief,” Christie has a knack for public persuasion. The New Jersey governor’s relentless town halls during the fight for his public-sector reforms were model examples of making an argument fearlessly and effectively.

Like Clinton, who so famously felt people’s pain, Christie connects. He has a reputation for confrontation — rightly — but Christie’s emotional range is much broader. His response to Hurricane Sandy was, in part, a great act of empathy.

What Clinton had that Christie evidently lacks is a well-thought-out approach to his party’s predicament. As a “New Democrat,” Clinton had a different governing philosophy, expressed in a raft of new policy proposals. Chris Christie has an affect and a style of governance.

If Christie’s message to the GOP is merely that it should look to what he did in the Garden State and be as wonderfully unifying as he is, it deserves to flop. It could come off as boastful and hectoring, and about as original as the average political discussion on NPR. Coupled with his various departures from conservative orthodoxy, it could be toxic.

For Christie truly to capitalize on his opportunity, he will need a conservative reform agenda, geared to the bread-and-butter concerns of ordinary voters. In his victory speech, Christie spoke of being “one of you.” As Henry Olsen writes, Christie’s potential is in matching that Everyman appeal with substance. He could set out to make himself a Republican by and for the middle class in a departure for the contemporary party.

Congratulations on the big win, governor. Now show us what’s next.

— Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: [email protected].© 2013 by King Features Syndicate


Election Night 2013
Tuesday night saw the resolution of high-profile election battles in New Jersey, Virginia, and New York City. Here’s a look at some scenes from election night, and one last bout of campaigning earlier in the day. Pictured, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie savors victory.
Governor Chris Christie and wife Mary Pat wave to supporters as they arrive for a victory celebration in Asbury Park. Christie romped to a re-election victory over Democratic opponent Barbara Buono.
Governor Christie addresses supporters — and offers some words of advice for Republicans across the country.
Chris Christie waves to supporters with daughter Sarah at his side.
Bill de Blasio waves to supporters as he arrives to give his victory speech. De Blasio easily defeated Republican challenger Joe Lhota to become the first Democratic governor of New York City in two decades.
Bill de Blasio hugs son Dante and daughter Chiara at his victory rally.
Newly-elected Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe speaks to supporters at a rally in Tysons Corner.
McAuliffe savors his victory over Republican challenger Ken Cuccinelli in a race that tightened significantly in the final days.
Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli waves to supporters during his concession speech in Richmond.
ELECTION DAY: Candidates squeezed in one last round of electioneering on the big day — and found time to get out their own vote. Pictured, New Jersey Governor Christie pauses for a photograph after voting at a polling center in Mendham.
Governor Christie takes a "selfie" photo with a New Jersey constituent in Mendham.
New Jersey Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono arrives at a polling site in Metuchen accompanied by her husband, Martin Grizzi.
Ken Cuccinelli talks with supporters while greeting voters arriving at Atlee High School in Mechanicsville.
Cuccinelli talks in front of a campaign sign at Brentsville District High School in Nokesville.
Terry McAuliffe hands a campaign flier to three-year-old Ozzie Springer at the Vienna/Fairfax GMU Metro Station in Fairfax.
McAuliffe greets campaign supporters after casting his own vote at Spring Hill Elementary School in McLean.
New York mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio greets voters at a public housing village in Queens.
De Blasio prepares to cast his vote at a public library in Brooklyn.
Former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani (left) stands with Republican New York mayoral candidate Joe Lhota as they greet morning commuters.
Lhota studies his ballot at a voting site in Brooklyn.
Updated: Mar. 01, 2014

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