Almost exactly eight years ago, Hillary Clinton was deliberating, intensely and in secret, over a fateful political decision: Should she launch a late entry into the 2004 presidential race? Much of the Democratic Establishment, from A-list donors and officeholders to activists and ordinary voters, were beseeching her to jump in. Her party’s existing candidates were widely seen as underwhelming—inadequate to the task of taking on an eminently beatable incumbent. John Kerry was too flaccid and Howard Dean too hot, Dick Gephardt past his sell-by date and John Edwards a talking haircut. Clinton’s senior advisers were all for the idea, as was her husband. What they were telling her, often in these words, was that “this could be your time.”
Clinton weighed the possibility all the way into November. In the end, however, Hillary concluded it was just too soon for her to make a presidential run. That voters would punish her for breaking a campaign vow to serve her first Senate term in full. That 2004 was not, in fact, her time—2008 or 2012 would be. Clinton’s assessment was rational, conventional, and highly prudent. But then the big wheel of history turned and rendered it mistaken.
Why retell this tale now? Because for the first and probably last time, New Jersey governor Chris Christie is experiencing his very own Hillary Clinton moment. Though the partisan polarities have been reversed, the similarities are otherwise striking. For Bush in 2003, substitute Barack Obama—the faltering and vulnerable incumbent. For Kerry, substitute Mitt Romney—the uptight, uninspiring, ostensible Establishment favorite struggling to gin up enthusiasm even among those who say they support him. For Dean, substitute Rick Perry—the populist firebrand whom the GOP political class fears would fumble a winnable election. And then there’s Christie, like Clinton before him, engulfed in a frenzy of importunings that no person with a pulse, let alone your average politician’s ego, would be capable of ignoring.
The differences between Christie and Clinton, of course, are too numerous to count. Yet the fundamental choice the former faces now is identical to the one the latter confronted back then: to play it safe, take a pass, and play a longer game, or to hop aboard a groundswell that arrived too soon but may never come his way again. According to several people who have talked to him on the topic recently, Christie understands this fully and is more favorably disposed to diving in than he has ever been before. But whichever way it goes, Christie’s decision, as was the case with Clinton’s, is likely to prove fateful—both for him and his party.
That the pining for Christie is being driven by dynamics that have little to do with him is a point that has been made ad nauseam but is worth unpacking further. For many months, Republicans have been searching high and low for an alternative to Romney—which at a glance seems strange, for here you have a candidate who checks all the boxes of credible front-runner-hood. But to switch historical analogies, Republicans today seem like the Democrats of 2008, balking at the prospect of the box-checking Clinton and ultimately embracing the outside-the-box Obama. Heading into 2012, the GOP is palpably hungry for a standard-bearer who matches the red-hot moment at hand. Someone with charisma, conviction, and a capacity to straddle the worlds of the tea party and the Fortune 500. Someone able not merely to beat Obama but to beat him to a bloody pulp. Which is to say, not Romney.
Perry was supposed to be that guy, and hey, who knows, he still might be. But from the outset it was obvious that some of the Texas governor’s more outré policy positions and cultural inclinations were going to make him an imperfect fit with many members of the Republican fat-cat class—or at least with those residing in the tri-state area, from Home Depot founder Ken Langone to hedge-fund magnate Paul Singer, whose proclivities on social issues tend to run toward the libertarian if not outright liberal. Add to that Perry’s shaky onstage turns in three successive televised debates, along with the patent implausibility of the rest of the Republican field, and the context for the current bout of Christiemania is clear.
But there is more to Christie’s appeal, for sure, than that he’s neither Romney nor Perry. In his nearly two years in the Jersey statehouse, Christie has garnered a reputation as outsize as his corporeal presence. Brash, blunt, at times obnoxious, his governing style has been take-no-prisoners and take-no-shit in equal measure. He has waged pitched battles with public-sector unions and enacted bipartisan legislation on budget deficits, property taxes, and unfunded pension liabilities—as well as telling off voters who have challenged him in public forums. (Asked by one to justify cutting funds for public education when his children are enrolled in private schools, he testily shot back, “First off, it’s none of your business; I don’t you ask where you send your kids to school, so don’t bother me about where I send mine.”)