Michael Tomasky on Chris Christie and the GOP’s Messiah Complex

Conservatives love the straight-talking New Jersey govenor, but he’s bound to break their hearts, argues Michael Tomasky.

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Well. After that performance at the Reagan Library, Chris Christie, the man who doesn’t want to run, is likely to be dragooned into the arena. It wasn’t the speech so much as his repartee with the audience during the Q&A session, when Christie pulled every tool out of the kit: a jab at Rick Perry on conservatives’ lack of heart, an imitation of a pleading Barack Obama that rang all too true even to this liberal, and a few swagger-ish quotes nicely designed to leave his audience gasping for more (“Real leaders, they don’t read polls—they change polls.”). I’ll go out on a limb and say that the Christie talk will not quiet down today.

The Jews waited 400 years for their deliverer. Republicans are an altogether more impatient bunch. Rick Perry got to ascend Mt. Sinai, but he flubbed the audition, so a mere month or so after many were singing his hosannas, he’s suddenly a false prophet. And now—maybe—it will be Chris Christie’s turn. All those things Perry was supposed to be: conservative, authentic, a man’s man; now these traits are being transferred onto the New Jersey governor, who is the subject of a report in Tuesday’s New York Times that has leading businessmen beseeching Christie to accept the staff and start smiting the borders of the blue states with frogs, so to speak.

Christie’s performance was impressive, but keeping my head about me, I still find his possible entrance into the race amusing on several levels. The first and most obvious is the irony inherent in the fact that, while this Christie-mania is quite clearly a vote of no confidence in Perry, the clear beneficiary of a Christie entry into the contest would be ... Perry. Christie will vie with Romney for primary and caucus votes chiefly in the North and to some extent in the Midwest. But can Christie be competitive with Perry in South Carolina? In Florida? Remember, we’re talking here about that state’s GOP primary electorate, not a general electorate; by which I mean, far fewer transplanted Northerners and Jews. Recall that Rudy Giuliani, the most Christie-like in many ways of the GOP 2008 field, was going to crush the competition in Florida as if they were so many sand-grown, hydroponic tomatoes. Instead, he finished a very distant third and withdrew.

If Christie were to become some kind of juggernaut, then so be it. But more likely, he joins but does not outpace the top tier. And he competes with Romney far more than with Perry, thus possibly helping Perry secure the nomination.

But the other and more important reason this desperation is amusing has to do with certain of Christie’s positions and statements that are sure to get more attention if he’s in the race. Think Mitt Romney had fun going at Rick Perry from the right on immigration? I reckon he’ll have himself a little party with quotes like these, uttered by U.S. Attorney Christie in 2008, speaking at a Latino church forum: “Being in this country without proper documentation is not a crime. The whole phrase of 'illegal immigrant' connotes that the person, by just being here, is committing a crime.” Being undocumented may be a civil wrong, but it's not a criminal act, Christie said. “Don't let people make you believe that that's a crime that the U.S. Attorney's Office should be doing something about. It is not.”

Christie has supported the assault weapons ban and opposed conceal-carry laws. He says global warming is real and calls evidence of the harmful effects of carbon dioxide emissions—in other words, acknowledgement of a human role—“undeniable.” Nate Silver has more. But the icing on the cake of apostasy is this Christie ad, which features gauzy music behind a political speech by another political figure with whom the candidate obviously wanted to associate himself. Ronald Reagan? George W. Bush? New Jersey founding father David Brearley? Guess again. If Charlie Crist couldn’t explain away appearing on a stage with Barack Obama, I don’t see how Christie shakes off this ad.

So Christie possesses a record capable of breaking right-wing hearts more ways than Perry can. The one thing Christie has going for him is affect. Rage and resentment ooze out of him. He puts liberals and busybodies in their place, like that poor woman caller a while back who asked him where he sent his kids to school. “You know what? First off, it’s none of your business,” he snapped. I say it damn well is her business. She’s one of his employers. That’s part of being a “public servant.” In any case it’s a question a million pols who send their kids to private school (as Christie does) have answered in bland and uninteresting ways. But Christie brought to the moment a pitch-perfect, right-wing, don’t-tread-on-me dudgeon that in an earlier time would have been seen for the boorish and rude behavior it was. Witness the crowds at these debates. Three or four well-timed moments like that, and who knows.

Good as Christie was last night, the whole package is more problematic for conservatives and reminds us that there is no perfect conservative candidate. There are three governors, two of Northern states and one from a state where for a fleeting moment the GOP felt it wanted to seduce Latinos. All of them have taken “indefensible” positions. The wingnut caucus is just going to have to settle on one. The perfect candidate is sitting on her front porch looking at Russia, and is so thoroughly imperfect to the rest of America that she appears (finally) to have gotten the message.