BACK FROM THE DEAD
The Unkillable Chris Christie?
Sure, he’s had a ton of bad press. But this is a guy whose political career was pronounced dead in 1997. Why he thinks his new series of policy speeches is a good 2016 tactic.
What if I told you that as Chris Christie walked offstage at a political event, a bystander made kissing noises at him, and when Christie inquired why in the hell the bystander was doing that, he responded, “That’s just me kissing your f---ing career goodbye.”
May began for Christie with the indictments of top-ranking members of his staff who had shut down traffic on the busiest bridge in the world in a half-baked plot to exact revenge on a small-town Democrat who had made the mistake of failing to endorse the big-time Republican.
A few days later, despite the fact that Christie himself was not indicted, his popularity sank to an all-time low: Just 35 percent of New Jersey’s registered voters approve of his job performance, according to a Monmouth University poll, while 56 percent disapprove. (In 2012, Christie’s approval was at 67 percent, and his disapproval was at 21 percent.)
A few days after that, public worker unions visited the state supreme court to argue that Christie’s 2014 decision to cut pension funding in order to close a revenue gap was unconstitutional, meaning his central achievement as governor—pension reform—could unravel before his sunken eyes.
And all this is happening as the governor tries to build momentum for a presidential campaign.
His coping mechanism seems to be to pretend that none of this is causing much self-doubt, or even self-reflection.
Christie is planning, over the course of the next few weeks, according to two sources close to the proto-campaign, to deliver a series of policy speeches on various topics: the economy (which he’ll deliver Tuesday in New Hampshire), followed by foreign policy, education, and energy.
It’s part of his effort to remind the media and voters that there is a belief system buried beneath the bluster.
Still, there’s no telling whether his attempt to change the conversation will work.
Given the state of things, “That’s just me kissing your f---ing career goodbye” does seem like the sort of thing Christie might hear. But what if I told you he didn’t hear it this week, or even this month, or even this year, but nearly two decades ago, in 1997?
Pronouncements of Christie’s imminent political death are as old as his political career itself. And not without reason, I should say.
In 1993, Christie kicked things off by running for the state senate and failing even to get his name on the ballot due to invalid signatures. In 1994, he ran for the Board of Chosen Freeholders and released a negative ad against his opponents that ultimately got him sued for libel. In 1995, after just two months on the Freeholder Board, he ran for the state assembly and came in last place. In 1996, he lost his libel suit, then lost his appeal, and then had to put his tail between his legs and issue a public apology in the pages of The Daily Record, acknowledging he made it seem like a non-criminal was a criminal. In 1997, having earned the distinction as the most hated Republican in Morris County, New Jersey, he ran for reelection to the Freeholder Board, and he lost. And then came the kissing noise, and the “f---ing career goodbye.”
Christie spent the next few years fundraising for George W. Bush, for which he was repaid with an appointment as United States attorney in 2001. “It gave him an opportunity to rehabilitate himself,” said Rick Shaftan, a Republican consultant and pollster who worked in Morris County during Christie’s flameout. In the U.S. attorney’s office, Christie transformed his image. Gone was the overly ambitious young politician, and in his place was a corruption-busting public servant. He nailed more than 100 public officials. “When he started indicting people, people started being scared s---less of him,” Shaftan said.
The rehabilitation period worked, and Christie used his new reputation to vault into the governor’s mansion in 2009.
So history suggests that Christie is a political cockroach, or a zombie, or a tomb-escaping, well-fed Jesus.
But can he come back from the dead again?
“He had some rough numbers early in his gubernatorial tenure. His numbers had dropped to the low 40s, and people were thinking he was going to be a one-term governor, and really, the way we did it was not dissimilar to the way he is [doing] it now: He went on the road.”
Mike DuHaime, Christie’s top political adviser, is explaining the “tactic” Christie is using to regain contender status. “Tactic,” DuHaime tells me, is a more accurate way to describe the governor’s plan to host town halls and meet with voters one-on-one than “strategy.” Tactic, he says, is “a little different” from strategy, and that distinction is important to DuHaime.
Whatever it is, it had better be good. It’s “two-pronged,” DuHaime explains. “You’ve got a combination of things: willingness to speak boldly about policy issues,” firstly, “and do that in a format where he’s taking [questions from voters].”
Christie’s upcoming series of policy speeches is intended to help define a message, but it’s unclear if the governor’s ideas will be interesting enough, or distinct enough, to win him much support in a crowded primary.
“There’s only one issue among primary voters,” Shaftan told me. “Who is gonna undo what Obama did?”
Christie’s problem, Shaftan said, is that “if you want a moderate, you’ve got Jeb Bush. If you want someone standing up to unions, you’ve got Scott Walker. If you want someone who appeals to Latinos, you’ve got Rubio. If you want someone who’s against Obama, you’ve got Cruz. Where’s [Christie’s] niche?”
But it’s not just about tactics, it’s also about patience.
“I think some people have to make some big mistakes,” a Christie confidant told me. “I think some other people have to be shown more fallible. That’s still yet to happen, [but] the intense laser focus hasn’t been on Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, or Rand Paul.”
Christie’s now years-long national vetting has harmed him, but it has a benefit: Most of his skeletons are already out of the closet, whereas the digging has yet to begin for many of his competitors. “It’s been a very tough media cycle for 16 months. That’ll come for everybody,” another Christie insider said. The source laughed: “Rubio’s got a tough story on the front page of The New York Times today—we’ve had 100 of those.”
The inevitable rise and fall cycle for each primary contender is something of a source of comfort, the source explained. “One of the things I’ve looked at, if you look at the negative polls from 2012, 2010, 2008, and back to 2000, you see in early states roughly half the voters not deciding until, like, the last second,” the source said.
By way of example, the source elaborated: “Michele Bachmann won the straw poll and then came in sixth place in the caucus! We’re just very cognizant of the long road that this is.”