Unless Chris Christie has been in a secret presidential candidate camp for the last year, it's just too late for him to start running for president. Ideally a candidate needs to decide two years before the first primary to run an effective campaign, one year earlier at the minimum. Before he or she ever stands in front of a crowd with banners and bunting, smiling family members and a horde of national press, the wannabe president must already have been preparing for the race for months. Recent history is littered with the collector's item bumper stickers and buttons of candidates who decided at the last minute to compete and flopped and the trouble Rick Perry is having lately only proves the point. As Wesley Clark's traveling press secretary in 2003 and 2004, I saw the limitations of too little preparation up close.
When Barack Obama began running in 2007, he once said that campaigning for president is not so much a marathon as it is a decathlon. He was right. A candidate doesn't have to win every contest, but he does have to win some and be competitive in others. Here are a few of the reasons Christie should not fall for the late entry trap:
1) Not enough time to do the self-research. Almost every candidate I have ever worked with in politics was sure they knew their strengths and vulnerabilities, but inevitably something comes up they never thought would see the light of day. Seeing what colleagues, neighbors and enemies say when you are not around in black and white, along with a skeptical view of one's financial history and a catalog of media statements, is quite illuminating. It may be tempting for Governor Christie to think he has just been through a tough state election so he already knows what's there, but the press and public in a presidential campaign reserve the right to pick through all of your personal history again with a much stronger magnifying glass. The prospect of seeing a person become a national leader has a way of emboldening reluctant witnesses to come forward that even previous government service did not inspire. Anita Hill never said a word during Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings for his federal judgeship, but once he was nominated for the Supreme Court...
2) Not many experienced staff and activists available. There are only so many people in the country who know how to run a national political campaign or an important primary state and most of them are already engaged with one of the other candidates. In 2004, Wesley Clark benefited greatly from picking up many of Bob Graham's campaign staff after he dropped out. If Christie wanted to find experienced people hungry for work, he probably missed his window as most of Tim Pawlenty's people have probably moved on already.
3) Raising money is almost always tougher than it looks. Friends are always willing to give, but a successful candidate needs them to raise money from others. That can be tougher. Also, the campaign needs networks of professional fundraisers who know how cultivate and grow a national donor network. Christie will undoubtedly do well in the beginning, but the real test as Rick Perry may be discovering now, is how to keep these donors engaged who show up like bugs attracted to bright lights, when things are not going so well.
4) Not enough time to learn the issues. There are only so many national issues a state governor has to know, but running for president requires learning a whole new issue terrain. George W. Bush spent months with Condoleezza Rice in 1999 being tutored in foreign policy before he ever set foot on a debate stage. Barack Obama had two years in the Senate on the Homeland Security and Foreign Relations committees to learn international affairs after spending six years in the Illinois state senate. Does Christie have an opinion about the Putin Medvedev role reversal? What about the merits of the Brazilian economic development model? Does he even know the name Lula? Maybe Republican voters don't care about foreign policy this year, but international events have a way of forcing themselves onto the presidential debate docket.
5) Mastering the Metaphysics. Even if Christie can magically conquer all of the logistical complications of a presidential campaign, then he needs to master the metaphysics. Does he have a feel for what the country wants and how to convince the he is the man to give it to them? Until recently, Christie has been sticking fairly close to New Jersey. Undoubtedly he has a strong feel for the people of the Garden State, but those in Iowa or South Carolina might see the world just a bit differently. Although Obama was new to the scene he had just been on a national book tour before declaring for president and according to a document prepared by his 2008 presidential campaign had been to 30 states campaigning for other Democrats in public events during the 2006 midterm campaign cycle. Obama had tried out lines in various places, talked to voters and had a better feel for what they wanted.
Finally, there is the gut factor. A man can't really be talked into running for president and do it well. The successful ones tend to have a drive to get to the White House that makes the early mornings, late nights, absence from family events and other grueling tasks of a campaign more appealing than all of the other more reasonable options.
Does Chris Christie really want to run for president? Does he want it more than he wants anything else in life other than the health of his family?
Presidential candidates should wanna win so badly that if they lose they end up like Al Gore after the recount disappearing to some far off land to grow a beard and gain too much weight. When friends come to visit, the failed candidate should be found "in seclusion" much like the older Mr. Lebowski in that scene from the movie The Big Lebowski after his wife Bunny was "abducted." Staring wistfully into the flames in the fireplace, Lebowski says to The Dude, played brilliantly by Jeff Bridges, "Are you surprised at my tears sir? Strong men also cry... strong men also cry."
If Christie doesn't want to be president so badly that losing will cause him to feel that much pain, he should just stay home and save us all from the drama.
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