Chris Christie is not a favorite of conservatives and certainly not a favorite of many here at Redstate. His recent appearance at the Iowa Freedom Summit is instructive and illustrative of why we should not necessarily discount Chris Christie as a candidate in 2016. This is certainly NOT(!) an endorsement towards those ends, but more a warning that “dead man walking” may very much be alive. And if we can leave the Krispee Kreme, Bridgegate and bully comments out of the discussion, let me lay out the case that we should not count Christie out just yet.
First, Christie is considered a part of the establishment wing of the Republican Party and I am not going to quibble with that distinction. However, a lot of political commentary is somewhat juvenile in that many like to box people into particular categories- liberal, conservative, moderate, Establishment, Tea Party, progressive, etc. Looking back at the Bush brothers it was George W. who was viewed as the more moderate at the time they were Governors of Texas and Florida. In fact, Jeb had to moderate his image leading into his 1998 reelection campaign lest he lose independent voters. Today, Jeb is considered a moderate in the GOP. But south of the Georgia state line, Florida remembers him as a staunch conservative in many areas like taxes, spending cuts, privatization, guns, crime, the death penalty and school choice. Today, what makes him a “moderate” is his positions on Common Core and immigration. Hence, the label is sometimes dependent on circumstances at any particular moment in history and it can change over time depending on anyone’s actions or words.
Second, let’s look at the history of Republican presidential nominees. There has not been a staunch conservative since Barry Goldwater in 1964 as the eventual candidate (some claim Reagan, but there were strains of moderation also). More recently in 2012, various names excited the conservative base of the GOP at various times of the campaign- Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry. And none of them emerged with the nomination. Now, this can be taken a few ways. Either when push comes to shove primary voters opt for the more “electable,” or the voters in the primaries have made serious mistakes by not running the most conservative candidate. A third theory is that the system is rigged in favor of the establishment-preferred candidate (a whole other story). A case can be made for either theory. Although there are considerably better and more conservative potential candidates for 2016, recent electoral history should give Christie some hope.
Third, Christie was head of the Republican Governor’s Association. No one can deny his accomplishments in that role as a fundraiser and as a booster for Republican gubernatorial candidates in the 2014 midterms. Besides raising money for and deftly funding candidates, he is partly responsible for the state-level gains made by Republicans last year. Along the way, he made allies, met donors and forged relationships. It would be premature to say that certain people “owe” Christie, but that thought will be in the back of the minds of many as this campaign season drags on. He has recently attended the inaugurations of some of those Governors he helped get elected including Terry Branstad in Iowa.
Fourth, his speech at the Iowa summit did not draw the great applause that greeted people like Cruz and others. It was not a red meat speech. But, Christie may have hit upon a campaign theme that he first alluded to in his State of the State address and that was the general anxiety America feels. To many, after six years of Obama, people feel anxious about the future of America domestically and our role in a changing and increasingly dangerous world. Christie was putting forth the belief that despite the differences among candidates in the GOP and between the GOP and the Democrats, leadership will make the difference.
Towards those ends, he touts the fact that he twice won elections in a very blue state. In fact, if you listen to Scott Walker’s speech, he was making the exact same case- that he three times won a Governor’s race in a blue state. And while a case can be made that Scott Walker’s conservative bona fides are more legitimate than Christie’s, it has to be remembered that Christie, unlike Walker, has to deal with a Democratic legislature and a very activist, liberal state supreme court. That does not infer that all things are equal, just that the circumstances are considerably different between the two Governors when it comes to governing in the real world. As an example, there is some grumbling among conservatives in Wisconsin that Walker is trying to avoid the somewhat contentious issue of establishing Wisconsin as a Right-to-Work state by asking the legislature to put off the issue lest it complicate his presidential aspirations.
The Iowa speech was not exactly Christie walking into the lion’s den. He was warmly received even if it wasn’t a speech that elicited a host of standing ovations. But neither did the audience walk out en masse. It was as if they were at least willing to give Christie a chance. Furthermore, watching Christie on the campaign trail in 2014, it became evident that he still had some star appeal and often received a greater reception than the candidate he was there to support. The fake scandal that is Bridgegate plays greater in New Jersey than in the other 49 states, or among his detractors on the Left or the Right. This speech was Christie building a bridge to the conservative base. It should also be noted that Christie has performed well in smaller venues throughout Iowa in the past which is part and parcel of the process in places like Iowa and New Hampshire.
In the wake of his appearance, Christie has formed the Leadership for America PAC which will allow him to travel the country making more appearances. A key date will be February 19th when the peculiar tradition of the Walk to Washington occurs. New Jersey politicos take the Amtrak train to DC and schmooze one another. The trip is sponsored by the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce which basically translates into networking with potential donors.
Finally, in a sense Christie is making a shrewd political move holding off on making an official announcement. At this point, the conservative base of the GOP’s ire is directed at another establishment favored candidate- Jeb Bush. They may have a slight advantage when it comes to fundraising and assembling a campaign team, but they are also in the spotlight while Christie can lurk in the background. My guess is that many wealthy New York and New Jersey donors will sit and wait until Christie announces his intentions one way or another and then fully open the coffers. Incidentally, we should have an inkling of the money race in April when the FEC releases the fundraising figures of the various potential candidate PACs. A better than expected showing by Christie would only bolster his credentials as a viable candidate.
As stated at the beginning of the article, this is NOT an endorsement of Christie. It is, however, a warning that he should not be counted out despite his perception among conservatives. Is he the most conservative candidate? Absolutely not. Is he the most electable candidate? Probably not. Is he politically dead as concerns the 2016 presidential sweepstakes? Time will tell, but probably not also.
There is enough in Christie’s resume to give many pause. And his weight is no more a campaign issue or potential target of attack from us on the Right or those on Left any more than Scott Walker’s lack of a college degree is an issue (in fact, I believe Walker can parlay that into an advantage). There is no “Jersey Comeback.” The somewhat improving economy (statistically-speaking) has largely left New Jersey behind. The state is still losing businesses, jobs and population. Tuition is up and the state’s bond rating is down considerably. But as long as there is that anxiety in the electorate, Christie has a chance. If he can expand on that theme and offer some solid policy proposals that mesh with conservative principles to a relatively great degree, then his chances increase.
The bottom line is that perhaps a month ago Chris Christie was “dead man walking.” Today, he is not so dead as he is in intensive care. The question is whether he will be taken out of intensive care or not.