Christiephiliacs: Why GOP Power Brokers Dream of New Jersey’s Governor

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Photo: Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

Last October, Chris Christie went to Iowa. There, in a banquet hall outside Des Moines, the New Jersey governor captivated 700 Republican donors with tales of the beat-downs he’s delivered to his state’s Legislature and teachers union. After his speech, some attendees expressed their hope that Christie would next set his sights on the White House. “He just needs to get himself out here more,” one told me. But Christie hasn’t been back since — so now Iowa is coming to him. On May 31, a half dozen prominent Iowa Republicans will meet with Christie at the governor’s mansion in Princeton and try to persuade him to run for president.

The pining for Christie undoubtedly stems partly from the pathetic state of the GOP presidential field. Looking at Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Newt Gingrich, the putative grown-ups in the race, Republicans don’t see anyone capable of beating Obama. The greater danger, however, is that the aforementioned grown-ups will prove so unpalatable to rowdy tea partiers — who will have more sway in the 2012 Republican primaries than the conservative id has had since 1964 — that none will even win the party’s nomination. That could put a fringier candidate atop the ticket (how fun would a Bachmann acceptance speech be?), which in turn might set back the GOP for more than just one election cycle.

Then there’s Christie. Like the other candidates-in-waiting touted as potential party saviors — Mitch Daniels, Jon Huntsman, Jeb Bush (!) — Christie has the support of GOP establishment-types. As the governor of a blue state, he’s had to stake out less-than-scorched-earth positions. (Even as Christie has battled public-employee unions, he’s declared, “I love collective bargaining.”) He’s also shown the capacity to criticize Obama without going completely around the bend.

Unlike his counterparts, however, Christie has managed to convince tea partiers that he’s not a weak-kneed sellout. He’s accomplished this by wrapping his relatively moderate policies in rhetoric you’d normally find in a wrestling arena. But while liberals may blanch when Christie urges reporters to “take the bat out on” a 76-year-old female state senator, in the end, that sort of hyperbole is less politically corrosive than questioning Obama’s nationality or calling him a socialist. Indeed, Christie’s singular political genius is delivering the outrage a large portion of the GOP base clearly craves in such a calorie-free fashion that he doesn’t simultaneously do substantive damage to the Republican brand.

Christie has been adamant that he won’t mount a White House bid this year. “If you get the chance to walk into the Oval Office and you’re not absolutely ready, you’re doing a disservice to your country,” he said that night in Iowa, “and I don’t think I’m ready.” That sort of modest self-assessment is rare in politicians. And if it’s a put-on, it’s impressive for its cunning, since it’s only made Christie’s admirers work that much harder to convince him — and voters, into the bargain — that he is in fact prepared. Meanwhile, the fiscal calamity that created an opening for a pugilist like him will only make governing experience a potential liability; he can’t try to close New Jersey’s yawning deficit without angering a number of constituencies. Already, his approval rating at home has slid below 50 percent.

“Nobody from Iowa was coming here to beg Jon Corzine to run for president of the United States,” Christie recently joked. The way he said it made one wonder if he might let himself be talked into doing that after all.