Pres. Barack Obama doesn’t lack for detractors, but he has never had one with quite the sting of Chris Christie.
Christie, of course, is the New Jersey governor who is not running for president. How do we know? He’s told us, over and over. In true Jersey style, he has been more Shermanesque than Sherman in his denials. Even the Civil War general didn’t threaten to commit suicide to get people to stop asking him about a presidential campaign.
No matter how many times Christie slammed the door, people kept knocking. According to published reports, he now may be rethinking. This created a frenzy around his recent speech at the Reagan library, which previewed the rationale for a Christie candidacy. His case against the president hinged on the L-word — not “liberal,” but “leadership.”
For a speech extolling Ronald Reagan at the Reagan library, Christie was shockingly nonideological. He defined Reagan by his confrontation with the air-traffic controllers’ union early in his presidency. In Christie’s telling, this episode showed, above all, backbone. Reagan was a man of his word — he said he’d fire the strikers, and he did.
Christie’s Reagan is an optimistic, roll-up-his-sleeves problem-solver. As a depiction of the historical Reagan, this is sorely lacking. It leaves out Reagan’s philosophical foundation. As a self-portrait of Chris Christie, though, it’s infallible.
Christie attributed his accomplishments in New Jersey to “leadership and compromise.” He told the truth about the state’s budgetary problems, proposed solutions, and — after haranguing and cajoling to get the most he could — compromised with a legislature controlled by the opposition. President Obama hasn’t done any of these things. He’s “a bystander” to the nation’s economic and fiscal problems.
The case against President Obama inevitably reflects the candidate making it. Mitt Romney thumps the president for not having private-sector experience — in other words, he’s never run Bain Capital. Rick Perry attacks him for lacking common sense — in other words, he’s not a Texan. Chris Christie rebukes him for not doing the tough things to address a dire fiscal crisis — in other words, he’s not the hard-charging governor of New Jersey.
No other Republican candidate has the same leadership chops as Christie. Romney has a reputation as a flip-flopper. Perry hasn’t had to govern in a blue state. Christie brings a record of accomplishment — closing a yawning budget gap, capping local property taxes, and reforming public-sector benefits — in a solidly Democratic state after pitched battles with entrenched special interests.
He is a Washington outsider whose girth and sharp tongue mark him as something completely different in a season of discontent with political as usual. In his Reagan speech, Christie slammed Congress, the nation’s least popular institution, right alongside the president. He wouldn’t have won in New Jersey without winning over independents en masse, and he’d have a message pitched to them nationally.
If he were to run. And if he were to be nominated. As soon as Christie entered the race, everything he’s done would loom larger. His budget record isn’t perfect, and positions of little relevance in New Jersey politics, like his support for gun control, would become land mines. One misplaced gibe could end his spell over conservatives. He’d have a steep learning curve on foreign policy, where his Reagan address was weak. Like Perry, he’d have a regional problem — a little New Jersey combativeness is fine in a one-minute YouTube clip, but how does it play over time? He’d have to raise money, build an organization, and chart a viable path to the nomination on a short timetable, all while risking his gubernatorial career.
The only reason to do it is if he has a deep ambition to be president. The counsel of prudence is to wait till 2016. But with President Obama vulnerable, that might mean waiting till 2020 for another opening. And by then, surely, there will be some other rising fresh face whose policy emphasis and manner suit the moment.
— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate