Politics

08.12.13

Can Chris Christie Avoid the Giuliani Jinx?

Right now, the governor is the favorite for the 2016 Republican nomination. But could sharp elbows and a touchy personality knock out this frontrunner too? By Lloyd Green.

You know things are messed up for the GOP when Gov. Chris Christie is the only Republican who leads Hillary Clinton in Georgia! (PDF)

Christie is at the top of the 2016 Republican presidential scrum and, for the moment, he even leads Sen. Rand Paul in Live Free or Die New Hampshire (PDF). The governor of reliably Blue New Jersey and possessor of an outsize personality, he commands attention.

Yet, none of this guarantees Christie the nomination. Electability is not the same as nominatability. He just needs to ask another Northeast Catholic executive who was also once deemed electable: former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Conceivably, Giuliani might have beaten Barack Obama; but he didn’t get past the primaries. Not. Even. Close.

In 2007, with the 9/11 attacks still fresh in voters’ minds, Giuliani was considered the candidate to beat. But his personal became the political and, ultimately, he met with outright rejection. He never won a single nominating contest; heck, he barely entered them.

Giuliani bet everything on the Florida primary, the eighth Republican nominating contest of the season. He lost, and before January 2008 was over, Giuliani was history.

Bad experiences, however, can mean lessons learned, and Christie’s operation is populated by former Giuliani aides. Mike DuHaime, who managed Giuliani’s run, is Christie’s chief political strategist. Bill Stepien is Christie’s deputy chief of staff, having done a stint as Giuliani’s field director and managing Christie’s victorious 2009 campaign.

Still, the same fate may await Christie because politics isn’t just about policy—it is also about persona. Undoubtedly, Giuliani’s social moderation put him at odds with a conservative Republican Party. However, Rudy’s unvarnished outer-borough inquisitorial mien and devil-may-care social life also made him an ill fit for the GOP, a party whose center of cultural gravity lies within the Bible Belt and America’s sunnier suburbs.

Christie is more in sync with Republican mores. Nonetheless, his sharp elbows put him at risk.

Christie is more in sync with Republican mores. Unlike Giuliani, the New Jersey governor is pro-life. Christie is also more openly critical of marriage equality. Nonetheless, his sharp elbows put him at risk. Christie’s derisiveness toward those within the GOP who differ with him on the proper balance between national security and civil liberties may haunt him. Not every disagreement should be disparaged like a bad plea offer. Bombast can come with a stiff price tag. Potential rivals aren’t reporters—they should be treated better.

Take Christie’s blowup with Senator Paul over National Security Agency surveillance. At a recent Aspen Institute confab, Christie derided libertarianism as a “very dangerous thought,” and then invoked 9/11’s “widows and orphans” to batter Paul. The senator fired back, and pointed to New Jersey taking federal aid for damage from Hurricane Sandy. After some more back-and-forth, Christie spurned Paul’s offer to sit down and talk over a beer, and managed to offend libertarians as well as a few establishmentarians.

A presidential appointee and veteran of the last three winning Republican campaigns told me, “Christie should have had the beer with Paul, welcomed him to New Jersey, given him some pizza and saltwater taffy, that sort of thing.” The Reagan, Bush 41, and 43 alum continued, “Paul is an ophthalmologist, and Bausch & Lomb’s global pharmaceuticals division is in Madison, N.J. It’s called graciousness.”

For sure, Christie knows how to do graciousness. His embrace of President Obama during and after Sandy demonstrated Christie’s ability to play nice. Indeed, in his current reelection drive, Christie is “scooping up Democratic endorsements from a growing group of so-called Christiecrats.

Yes, Christie leads in most intra-party presidential polls. But to capture the nomination, Christie will need to build upon his early support and then hold on to it. Otherwise, he stands to become Giuliani 2.0. This means Christie cannot brazenly stick his finger in the eye of a growing strain of libertarian-minded Republicans. Whether he likes them or not, whether he agrees with them or not, they came within seven votes of cobbling together a bipartisan House coalition opposed to the NSA data grab.

Already, Christie is catching flak. Peggy Noonan—who, in the past, lauded Christie’s leadership and praised his 2012 Republican National Convention speech as “big” and “hopeful,” is disturbed by Christie’s latest take on things. As she blogged at The Wall Street Journal, “I can’t shake my dismay at Gov. Chris Christie’s comments … on those who question and challenge what we know or think we do of the American national-security state.”

If Christie intends to continue with a hard line on surveillance, he should at least need to leaven his approach with personal transparency. Fair’s fair. If he wants to know our secrets, then we should know his. At least as they pertain to his public duties.

For starters, Christie should announce that his office expense records during his tenure as a federal prosecutor for New Jersey and as governor will not be shielded from public scrutiny. As a gubernatorial candidate in 2009, Christie’s records as U.S. attorney were the subject of a Freedom of Information Act cat-and-mouse game between Christie; his opponent, the since-disgraced former New Jersey governor Jon Corzine; and an eager press. Secrecy from Iran, China, Russia, and al Qaeda is one thing; secrecy from tax-paying citizens about things domestic is a whole other story.

Anyway, that stuff usually sees the light of day. We have come to learn about George W. Bush’s DUI arrest, Giuliani’s client base, Mitt Romney’s offshore holdings and tax returns, and Hillary’s conflict-laden, taxpayer-funded, sweetheart deal with Anthony Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin.

The White House is a potentially winnable by Christie. A Democratic victory in 2016 would be the first presidential three-peat since Ronald Reagan passed the baton to George H.W. Bush in 1988. So, if the governor has eyes for more than just Trenton, he should lower those elbows, drop his decibel level, and start disclosing now. Plainspoken needn’t mean bullying, and the truth usually seeps out, like it or not.