Yes, Chris Christie is a viable presidential candidate for 2016. Ignore anyone who compares him to Rudy Giuliani; that’s totally the wrong comparison. Is he a frontrunner? It’s too early to tell, but Christie boosters need to explain how he gets around some pretty serious obstacles.
The basic way to assess presidential candidates, this far out, is whether they meet basic tests for viability. It’s no exact science, but viable candidates must have conventional qualifications and fall within the mainstream of their party on most issues of public policy. Fail one or the other, and as candidates from Michele Bachmann (Member of the House) to Gary Johnson (out of the mainstream) to Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich (both!) have discovered, you’ll get nowhere near the Oval Office.
Christie, assuming he is re-elected as governor of New Jersey, easily meets the first test, and he almost certainly meets the second one. After all, candidates don’t have to have a perfect record of supporting every party position from birth; they only need to be close enough to the broad mainstream that when there are differences, they can find ways to have convincing conversions (as candidates from George H.W. Bush to Al Gore to Mitt Romney have had on abortion) or to at least fudge the issue (as Romney did on guns and LGBT issues).
So Christie is no Giuliani. Rudy may have been something of a conservative poster boy for the September 11 attacks (and, no, I don’t really understand that either), but he also failed both viability tests. Mayor of New York City isn’t a conventional qualification for the presidency; indeed, no mayor or former mayor (without other added experience) has come anywhere close to winning a nomination since reforms changed the process after 1968. Mayor of New York, anyway, is a famously dead-end job; it’s an Iron Law of Politics that no New York mayor moves up to statewide office, let alone national office.
Moreover, Giuliani had a wide array of issues—most notably abortion, but also guns and gays—where he was totally out of the Republican mainstream. All of it meant that while lots of Republicans could get themselves excited about the idea of Rudy Giuliani, there was no way he was going to come anywhere close to a nomination.
Christie, on the other hand, is a perfectly viable candidate.
But so are Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, and probably several others. I think this is where Nate Cohn’s optimistic take on Christie’s chances is probably too strong.
The first potential problem for Christie is simple: guns. Cohn says that issue “isn’t anything close to a litmus test,” but I’m not convinced by that at all. It’s true that there are plenty of rank-and-file Republicans who are in favor of gun control in different sizes and shapes. Rank-and-file voters are not nearly as important as organized groups and other party actors in the primary stage of a presidential race. In the Republican party elite, there’s a pretty hard line against even moderate gun control.
The NRA and other organized groups have proven in the past that they’re willing to accept flip-flops from candidates (such as Romney) who are moving from a state to a national constituency.
I don’t think it’s quite the veto point that, say, abortion would be. But it’s a real problem for him.
The other problem is how Christie differentiates himself from the field in a way that works for him within the party. There the problem is that Christie has picked up a fair amount of baggage as an Acela corridor governor. It may not add up to flat-out disqualification—again, he’s no Giuliani—but that does raise questions about why mainstream conservatives would choose to trust him when they appear to have plenty of other options. I’m thinking here of things such as his embrace of Barack Obama after Hurricane Sandy and his ability to work with (private-sector) unions. And, I suspect, plenty of other little bits and pieces of things that will raise questions among various different Republican party actors.
And then there’s the whole question of Republican party strategy this time around. Clearly, the GOP will be split between those who want to find a good general-election candidate and might think Christie qualifies … and those who believe that the party has nominated nothing but squishes and RINOs ever since Ronald Reagan left the White House. That latter group isn’t going to be very tolerant of Christie’s minor deviations from orthodoxy.
Again, that doesn’t mean he’ll have no chance. Actual performance as a candidate makes a difference for presidential nominations, and that includes everything from small group meetings with party actors to televised debates to direct campaigning to voters. One can speculate forever about how this or that candidate will do at those things, but there’s really no way to know until it actually happens. The key is that candidates who start out implausible can’t overcome that, no matter how good they are at those stages.
So: Christie is a viable candidate, but probably starts off with more things to overcome than do some of the others chomping at the bit. I’m afraid that’s about as much as you can say about nomination candidates in a wide-open field at this early point in the race. But at least we can say that, win or lose, he’s no Rudy Giuliani.
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