In 2011, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was a champion to conservatives who admired his combative approach to critics and his willingness to stand up to the public sector unions. Moderates saw him as a blue state Governor who worked well with Democrats and who balanced the state's budget. The Republican establishment took notice, seeing him as the candidate who could bridge the ideological chasm between conservatives and moderates, and by doing so close party ranks, unifying the party.
Many prominent Republicans beseeched Christie to seek the GOP 2012 Presidential nomination. Polls showed Christie sporting a redoubtable lead against all other potential Republican opponents, and leading President Barack Obama in a hypothetical general election matchup. However, Christie resisted the pressure and announced that he would not run for the nomination, averring: "Now is not my time."
After the Republican Party's 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, lost the race to Obama, Christie began preparing for a 2016 Presidential bid. Christie was at the high watermark of his popularity. One year later, he exhibited his electoral bone fides by being re-elected as Governor of Democratically leaning New Jersey with 60 percent of the vote. He was ready to use this landslide victory as an argument to Republican voters that he could garner votes behind enemy lines in a General Election campaign as well. Then, Christie's good political fortune regressed. It was revealed that after Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich refused to join other Democratic mayors in endorsing Christie, Christie aides schemed to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge allegedly as political retribution. This began a nosedive for Christie's job approval rating in New Jersey. This was then compounded by discontent among state residents over Christie's frequent out of state political trips and the credit downgrades in New Jersey. Consequently, Christie now harbors job approval ratings of just 30 percent in his home state, and is in the middle of the pack of Republican Presidential candidates nationally.
Contrawise, after delivering the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, Barack Obama, then a recently minted nominee for an open U.S. Senate seat in Illinois, rose to national political stardom in the Democratic Party. After being elected to the Senate, liberal, moderate and conservative Democrats requested that Obama campaign with them in their home states. Obama was one of a very few national Democrats who were welcome in Nebraska to campaign for the re-election of conservative U.S. Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE) and in Vermont to campaign for U.S. Senate candidate Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist. Consequently, members of the Democratic high command geminated with rank-and-file Democrats and persuaded Obama that 2008 was Barack Obama's time. Despite a dearth of experience, and the fact that he made the following pledge to his new constituents: "I can unequivocally say that I will not be running for national office in four years," Obama broke his pledge and sought the nomination.
There was a vacuum for a major candidate who was charismatic and not an entrenched member of the Beltway Establishment who had opposed the Iraq War from the start and could assemble a coalition of African-Americans, gentry progressives and disaffected Independents. Obama saw that the electoral stars were aligned in favor of his candidacy. He ran and won. Had he waited, the issue of the Iraq War likely would have become a less prominent issue, and Obama would have been seen as just another U.S. Senator with Presidential ambitions.
Similarly, the timing of Bernie Sander's in entrance into the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination is politically impeccable. With the more centrist Hillary Clinton as the preponderant front-runner for the Democratic Presidential nomination, there was an aperture on the left for an unreconstructed progressive candidate. Many grassroots Democrats have never gotten over Hillary Clinton's 2002 vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq. The Occupy Wall Street movement unleashed a cavalcade of opprobrium toward the financial elites on the left. Hillary is viewed with suspicion for her ties to Wall Street and the fact that seven of her top ten donors since 1999 are Wall Street related.
Sanders was a vociferous opponent of the authorization of the use of force in Iraq, and the flagship issue of his 2016 Presidential campaign is combating what he calls "unquenchable greed of the Billionaire Class" The result is that Sanders is surging in the polls, is drawing better than expected crowds to rallies around the country and is making Hillary less immutable than many political observer thought she would be in the Democratic Primary.
For Hillary's husband, then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, the timing of his centrist message was spot on. In 1984, U.S. Senator Gary Hart (D-CO) ran for President as what is now known as a "New Democrat." The impetus of his campaign was to foster economic growth rather than push for the redistribution of wealth. Hart argued that the Democratic Presidential nominee should not be captive to labor unions and to the "special interest government in Washington." However, Democratic voters nominated former Vice President Walter Mondale, a traditional liberal. Mondale was trounced in the General Election, losing 49 states.
Four years later, two centrist candidates, former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt and U.S. Senator Al Gore (D-TN), ran for the nomination, but again, the party chose a more traditional frost-belt liberal: Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. Dukakis won just ten states in the General Election.
By 1991, the Republican Party was desperately looking for a winner. President George H.W. Bush, in the wake of his handling of the Persian Gulf War, seemed indomitable, at one point sporting a 91 percent job approval rating, and defeating the leading potential candidate, New York Governor Mario Cuomo, by a jaw dropping 62 points. One-by-one, potential Democratic contenders announced they would not seek the nomination.
The afterglow for Bush of the U.S. victory in the Gulf proved ephemeral. As the economy cratered, Clinton, who had promised Arkansas voters during his 1990 re-election campaign that he would serve out his full term, saw his chance. He went on a tour of the state, asking his constituents to release him from his campaign pledge. With a less than stellar field shaping up, and his tactical electoral antenna at its optimal height, Clinton announced his candidacy in October of 1991.
Clinton ran as a "New Democrat." At a time of discontent among voters within the political establishment, Clinton deadpanned: "I'm against brain-dead policies in either party or both." Clinton pledged to: "end welfare as we know it," and wanted to establish a nationwide paramilitary "boot camp" program for non-violent first-time offenders. Moreover, he praised Bush's handling of the War, and, like Hart, called for economic growth rather than redistribution of the wealth. The party decided that nominating a winner would trump nominating an ideologically rarified candidate. Unlike the three aforementioned centrist candidates, Clinton was in the right place at the right time, and won the nomination and the Presidency.
Contrawise, one of Clinton's opponents in that race, U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), unashamedly branded himself: "a liberal." He exclaimed: "I'm the only real Democrat in this race." Harkin's message was almost a mirror image of the one Sanders is now peddling. The populist Harkin excoriated corporate leaders whose "pay increased four times faster than employees did and three time faster than profits" and called "for resourced-based economics." Harkin exclaimed: "No more trickle down. Put it in at the bottom. Let it percolate up for a while." However, Harkin's' progressive message failed to resonate with a large swath of Democratic voters as he only won his homestate primary. Harkin's old-time liberal religion might have struck a resonate chord with Democratic voters in 1984 and in 1988, but by 1992 the message became antediluvian. Harkin's message did not correspond to the times.
An effective Presidential candidate must strike at the right time with an image and message that resonates for that election cycle. Christie may have had had both in 2012, but failed to seize the opportunity. Harkin ran at a time when the Democratic Party was moving to the center and away from his traditional liberal message. Obama, Sanders and Clinton seized and capitalized on the moment. As the late nineteenth century British Prime Minister William Gladstone observed: "In Politics, timing is everything."