I’m not man enough to take up Ramesh Ponnuru’s challenge to choose from Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and Mitt Romney, but here are some thoughts on Christie relative to Romney:
As NR has pointed out, Christie as governor is well to the right of Mitt Romney prior to Romney’s attempt to reinvent himself as an orthodox conservative. I urged Christie to run, in a post that I can’t seem to locate at the moment, and I would still like him to take a shot. But . . .
The dynamics of running for president are just so different from those of state-level politics. Look at Tim Pawlenty. He is easy to make fun of, but he was a tough and successful governor in a swing state. And yet, he seemed lost when talking to conservative Republican voters in a national context. He started by displaying absurdly hyperbolic (and obviously inauthentic) aggression toward Obama and ended with a preposterous plan with unearthly economic growth projections. From start to finish, Pawlenty related to conservatives like a clumsy anthropologist who just made contact with a lost Stone Age tribe.
And it wasn’t just Pawlenty. Do you think that Rick Perry ever imagined that, in running for president, he would be hit from the right by . . . Mitt Romney? Once again, it is easy to mock Perry as dumb, but the reality is that running for president is complicated and has lots of hidden minefields.
Romney wasn’t a natural politician and he wasn’t an ideological conservative, but he worked very hard, for a very long time, studying how to win the acquiescence (if not the enthusiastic support) of the party’s base. He never became a natural. A natural would never have called himself “severely conservative.” But he generally knew what buttons to push. His debate answers on Romneycare were beautifully constructed to soothe his audience by playing to their lower-spending, lower-tax, federalist, and localist beliefs.
I’m not sure Christie is ready to play at that level. Christie is a favorite of the big-money donors, and he will likely get plenty of support from former officeholders and consultants. These groups don’t always have the best sense of how to relate to the Republican nominating electorate. Pawlenty and Perry had consultants too. One of the curses of the GOP is the contempt of the establishment for the base. A lot of it comes down to the feel of the candidate for the national nominating electorate. By 2011, Romney had basically been running for president full-time for about five years. Christie still has a real job. If he runs, his advisors won’t be able to avoid every potential error, and they might even steer him into a few ditches.
How Christie handles those missteps will be key. Consider his clash with Rand Paul. Christie’s first instinct in intraparty scraps is to go into his Hulk Smash act. Christie isn’t some mentally unstable lout. He has rhetorical modes beyond self-righteous rage. In a state context, he usually knows when to deploy anger to his advantage (usually in response to rudeness from one of his opponents). It is a small sample, but the combination of inexperience at the national level and an instinct to respond to being challenged with self-destructive anger could hurt Christie. On the other hand, if Christie and his team are aware of this risk, they should be able to minimize it.
My thoughts on Romney and Jeb Bush later in the week.