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.”)
“He’s real, he’s tough, he says what he thinks, [and] he’s someone who has approached the problems of his state with utter fearlessness,” argues Steve Schmidt, chief strategist for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “A lot of people are just offended and sick and tired of all the political correctness, of leaders tiptoeing around, focus grouping, polling, [asking] ‘What do I say?,’ afraid of offending this one, that one. [But] he is just utterly real.”
Last week, in his speech at the Reagan library in California, Christie showed how his approach in his state could be turned into a template for a presidential run. “In New Jersey over the last twenty months, you have actually seen divided government that is working,” Christie said. “We identified problems. We proposed specific means to fix them. We educated the public on the dire consequences of inaction. And we compromised on a bipartisan basis to get results. We took action … This is the only effective way to lead in America during these times.”
Potent as this message might prove to be on the national stage, until recently Christie had disclaimed—adamantly, unequivocally, with no trace of wiggle room—any interest in employing it there in 2012. But at the Reagan library, he adopted a less definitive stance, pointedly leaving the door ajar. What changed? No doubt the continued up-for-grabness of the race has had an effect, convincing him that the big prize is ripe for the taking. And so has the insistence of the pleading and the caliber of the pleaders. In addition to the likes of Langone, Singer, and a conga line of megadollar donors, among those who have reportedly encouraged Christie to run of late—assuring him not just that he can win but could handle the presidency—are Nancy Reagan, Henry Kissinger, and Bush 43.
None of this remotely means that winning his party’s nomination, much less the White House, would be a slam dunk for Christie. Getting a presidential campaign up and running from a standing start three months before the first votes are cast would be a monstrously daunting challenge. Christie’s unorthodoxies might be less attractive in a presidential candidate than a presidential chimera. As has been true of Perry, Christie’s lack of depth on foreign and national domestic policy might prove problematic. And his record in New Jersey has its share of soft spots, not least a state unemployment rate higher than the national average.
Then there is the matter of Christie’s health. Two months ago, the governor was hospitalized with breathing difficulties (he suffers from chronic asthma), and between that and what surely must qualify as his morbid obesity, it is reasonable to wonder if he is physically capable of bearing up to the brutal rigors of a presidential campaign. “I swear to God,” says one veteran campaign operative who is a Christie fan, “I’d be worried that if he runs, there’s a chance that it will kill him.”
Christie is acutely aware of all these reasons to stay put and stand pat. But he has also—finally, after having the point hammered home to him by various national figures, including more than one Democrat—come to realize that of all the variables in presidential politics, timing is the least prone to control but also the most crucial. As a Republican, and a controversial one, in a basically Democratic state, he will face a tough reelection fight in 2013. By the time the next presidential race rolls around, in other words, he may no longer be in office; and even if he is, there may either be a Republican incumbent in the White House or a Republican array of challengers considerably more formidable than the current one (featuring the likes of Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Rob Portman, John Kasich, Nikki Haley, and/or Bobby Jindal).
All of which is to say that 2012 may be Christie’s best and clearest shot at the Oval Office—that this may be his time. And while Christie might wish it were not so, ignoring that fact could come back to haunt him. “There are no cryogenic chambers in politics,” says Schmidt. “The moment is perishable; it’s either seized or it fades away.” And if you doubt that Schmidt is right, just ask Hillary Clinton.