Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Chris Christie, Now Or Later?

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey is that rare political phenomenon in American politics, a natural communicator with intuitive appeal that reaches, because of his personality, outside his ideological base. (Only Ronald Reagan, in recent memory, is comparable.)

Mr. Christie emerged suddenly on the national stage when he won an upset victory over an entrenched and seemingly unbeatable New Jersey politician who had previously been a U.S. senator and, before that, a Wall Street mogul. The year was 2009, and it had been a very bad time for Republicans and conservatives. They had lost control of the Congress in 2006, and the presidency in 2008. Radically liberal ideas were not only resurfacing for the first time in a long while, they were being enacted and signed into law. Liberals, after two terms of President George W. Bush were claiming and expecting a full realignment in U.S. politics.

There were only three major election contests in the 2009 off-year elections, and they included the hitherto Democratic-dominated political battlefields of Massachusetts and Virginia, in addition to New Jersey. No one right of center seemed sanguine then about the political present and future.

But President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid began misplaying their hands early by pushing for radical programs and avoiding the most pressing economic issues facing the nation. So less than one year after taking complete control of the government, the public began reacting against the Democratic leadership. The election of Republican Scott Brown was the first hard evidence of this reaction, and his defeat of a Democratic nominee for the “Ted Kennedy” senate seat in Massachusetts was a sensation. At the same time, two Republican candidates for governor, one in Virginia (Bob McDonnell) and one in New Jersey (Christie) won their races against favored Democratic candidates. The 2009 elections turned out to be an omen for the landslide win for Republicans in U.S. house and senate, state gubernatorial and legislature races the following year in 2010.

Brown, reflecting his state’s more liberal electorate, has disappointed some conservatives, but McDonnell has impressively turned Virginia around with his consistently right of center policies and programs. Perhaps most surprising of all three, Christie confronted liberal forces and groups memorably with both words and action, and has established himself as an emotional and ideological favorite of many Republicans outside his home state.

In the lead-up to the 2012 presidential campaign, Christie has been as frequently mentioned as a candidate as much or more than any other new GOP figure, but he has steadfastly (to the present time) resisted any attempts to bring him in as a candidate. He has maintained that he is only in the third year of his first term as governor, and that he still has children at home. On the other hand, he has increasingly appeared outside New Jersey to assist Republican candidates.

It was such an appearance in October, 2010 that Mr. Christie came to Minnesota to appear on behalf of the GOP ticket in the state. On a platform shared with three presidential candidates (Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour and Michele Bachmann) and several other conservative stars, Mr. Christie quickly dominated the proceedings with his inimitable “in your face” style that instantly charmed the assembled crowd, most of whom had neither heard of him nor seen him in person before. I had been skeptical of his ability to do it routinely before this occasion, even though I had seen him perform on several You Tube videos and newscasts. Since that time it has been much more of the same, most recently in his “Get the hell off the beach” warning to coastal residents and visitors to New Jersey just prior to the arrival of Hurricane Irene.

Governor Christie seems to be unflappable and uninitimidatable before the verbal onslaughts of individual liberals and liberal groups, most notably the labor unions which have hitherto dominated state and Democratic politics for a generation. I can think of no other Republican politician who can do this so well and so consistently. At the same time, he is establishing a remarkable record of instituting conservative polices in New Jersey. Of course, in the latter he is far from alone. Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Governor Mitch Daniels in Indiana, and Governor Bob McDonnell are doing at least as well, as are numerous other new Republican governors (and two notable Democratic ones, Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York and Governor Jerry Brown in his reprise as chief executive of “ungovernable” California).

Mr. Christie’s political record is also not without controversies, including his time as U.S. attorney of New Jersey (2000-08), and most recently with his appointment to the New Jersey supreme court of an Indian-American Muslim.

Others in his party have more political experience, longer conservative records, and more aesthetic appearance (Mr. Christie is easily the most portly major figure in the Republican party since William Howard Taft). But there is something magical, powerful and contemporaneously unique in his ability to communicate that singles Chris Christie out in American politics today. He is an unlikely combination of Fiorello LaGuardia, Winston Churchill and Everyman that points him eventually to a run for the presidency.

The only question is: will it be now or later?

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