Chris Christie: Destined to Disappoint?

10/02/2011 03:35 pm ET | Updated Dec 02, 2011
  • Stewart J. Lawrence Founder and managing director, Puentes & Associates, Inc.; journalist and public policy analyst

New Jersey governor Chris Christie used to laugh when reporters asked him if he would consider running for president. "Are you kidding, don't I have enough problems already?" was his standard, self-deprecating reply. But of course, that was before the party's latest "messiah," Texas governor Rick Perry, began stumbling so badly. Now hold-out Republican donors who've been loathe to commit funds to the lackluster -- though improving -- candidacy of Mitt Romney are just as reluctant to back the "Second Coming" of George W. Bush. They're begging Christie to throw his hat into the ring, and the plucky 49-year-old governor, after months of saying, in effect, "thanks but no thanks," seems close to changing his mind.

Conservatives anxious to jump on the Christie bandwagon are in for a big surprise, though. That's assuming they look past Christie's pugnacious style -- including his highly publicized attacks on public sector unions -- and start examining his actual record. Exhibit A, perhaps, is immigration. Christie has publicly supported the Barack Obama-George W. Bush plan for comprehensive immigration reform, which places him squarely in the dreaded "amnesty" camp. In fact, on immigration at least, Christie's even to the "left" of Perry, who supports in-state tuition subsidies to illegal immigrants but says he won't back an "amnesty" program, even a partial one like the "DREAM" Act that wouldn't just provide illegal immigrant students with tuition subsidies but would actually grant them green cards.

And it's not just immigration. On gun control, gay civil unions, and cap-and-trade, issues on which Christie has expressed strong support since taking office just 20 months ago, he's as much out of step with the conservative Tea Party base as former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels was. Daniels came under fire from Christian conservatives, and beat a hasty retreat, eventually dropping out of the race altogether. Among the current crop of candidates, Christie's closest ideological soul mate could well be former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who's been pegged -- and dismissed -- as a hopeless RINO (Republican in Name Only). Huntsman, who shares most of Christie's views, has struggled to gain traction as a GOP presidential candidate, even though he has impeccable pro-life credentials and a sterling record as a tax-cutter and jobs-creator.

And speaking of jobs creation, how will Christie, whose state is still plagued by an above-average jobless rate, hope to compete with Romney, Perry or even businessman Herman Cain? It's not Christie's fault, of course, that New Jersey's in such a deep hole, but at a time when the jobs issue trumps the deficit for most voters, and perhaps, even most Republicans, Christie will be hard pressed to distinguish himself. He's a compelling speaker, and he'll have no trouble convincing listeners that he means well. But with no past record of business success to match Romney's, for example, he'll be vulnerable on points, and may not fare well in future debates, which like Perry, it turns out, are not his forte.

So is Christie serious? At one level, he surely is. It's hard not to be flattered when a fawning horde of political donors and grassroots operatives keep appearing at your door, literally begging you to run. And there's probably nothing wrong with moving out of the "coquette" phase and actually taking a brief spin on the dance floor with your seducers. That probably accounts for the remarkable nature of his speech last week at, of all places, the venerable Ronald Reagan Library in California. Christie not only called out President Obama by name (disparaging him as nothing more than a Nero-like "bystander" to the nation's current economic crisis), he pointedly suggested that he was a better leader and "problem solver." And in a bid to portray himself as a statesman, and possible commander-in-chief, perhaps, he freely crossed over from domestic policy into foreign affairs -- a first for Christie, and another telltale sign that he's actually taking a bid seriously.

Like Sarah Palin, Christie probably has a couple of more weeks (at most) to bask in the media spotlight before a real decision must be made. And perhaps, like Palin, he'll end up exploiting his party's "messiah" complex to promote his name and his "brand," and position himself for 2016, or possibly as a VP candidate in 2012. Christie's clearly a comer, and assuming all goes reasonably well, he might one day become his party's standard-bearer, much like Reagan was. What he offers his party -- and indeed, the country, perhaps -- is a shot at building bridges with Democrats and forging tough and decidedly "conservative" bipartisan compromises, which could well move the GOP from the "party of no" into something resembling a dominant ruling party that once again commands genuine respect from voters.

If you doubt that a GOP formula of this kind could work -- or holds genuine voter appeal -- consider the latest Rasmussen poll. Christie, like Romney, is running even with Obama. But he has no campaign organization or staff, and hasn't really been vetted, certainly not in the context of a high-intensity presidential campaign, which at this late stage, makes him a risky choice.

There are skeletons in his closet, notably the role he played in attacking New Jersey's Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, but his chief shortcoming may simply be that the nominating process has already foreclosed candidates of his ilk, as the early withdrawal of Daniels, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush -- as well as the continuing reluctance of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani to commit -- all seem to indicate.

Some have suggested that Christie, weighing in the neighborhood of 300 pounds or more, may simply be too "fat" to be president, just as Daniels, at 5'7", was deemed to be too short. But the real problem isn't Christie's girth -- if it were, he'd never been so resoundingly elected -- but the out-sized hopes and distorted expectations of those so eagerly cheering him on.