Gov. Chris Christie is showing prospective suitors a little leg in the 2012 presidential race. Let us hope this is all a tease. Else Mr. Christie is likely to learn an iron law in politics—to take our awkward metaphor one step further—sometimes it is actually better to be the bridesmaid instead of the bride.
Every election year, there is some candidate of the moment ready to stampede to the nomination and a November triumph. Rudy Giuliani . . . Elizabeth Dole . . . Newt Gingrich . . . Fred Thompson . . . and, oh, Rick Perry (Remember him?). Each entered the presidential race at or near the top of the polls, with millions of dollars pledged to them, with assorted pundits calling them political game-changers, with enthusiastic supporters vowing to stick with them all the way to the convention. And each of them quickly found themselves weighed down by political gravity, a fickle electorate, and a mettlesome, mischievous press.
Gov. Christie surely knows, as all of us in Washington do, what will happen to him the minute he gets into the race for real. That is when the opposition researchers starting earning their paychecks. When political reporters begin to hear whispers from other campaigns or from the governor’s opponents in New Jersey. The first wave of attacks is obvious, and it’s already begun: He’s undisciplined. He’s mean. He’s a loud mouth. He has poll problems in his own state. He alienates people. He doesn’t work well with others.
Then of course there’s the matter of what a Washington Post column this week unsubtly called Mr. Christie’s “hefty burden.” The Huckabee and Taft comparisons are sadly inevitable. Late-night comedians will be vicious and people will laugh. And that’s just assuming Mr. Christie has been a faithful conservative governor without a hint of scandal.
All bets are off if the good governor has ever departed from party orthodoxy, like Giuliani or Romney. Or ticks off the GOP establishment, like Perry. Or has a problem with big shots at Fox News, like Fred Thompson. Or advanced any proposal or policy that might in even the remotest way have helped a financial contributor. Or had anything to do with vaccinations for kids. Or bought his wife any jewelry. Or ever stumbled over his words. This is how the political prognostication class gets their kicks—they build a lofty tower for their candidate du jour and then remove brick after brick after brick.
Can Christie survive this? Of course he can. Others have. And he looks like a confident candidate, a person with ideas. Even in today’s political world, those qualities still count. But with so little time before actual voting begins, the margin for error is infinitesimal. The governor has to really, really want this—be really prepared for what is to come—or he’ll wind up destroying a promising early debut on the national stage.
There will be other promising political years. And there are other options.
Many moons ago, another mid-Atlantic governor was supposed to be his party’s next great hope. Basking in the pleas of adoring supporters who admired his rhetorical style, New York’s Mario Cuomo flirted publicly for months with the idea of running for the White House—so much so that annoyed reporters soon dubbed him “the Hamlet on the Hudson.” As the deadline for filing in New Hampshire approached, word leaked that Cuomo even had a jet ready to dash him off to Concord to submit his paperwork. Then . . . with the political class at the point of salivation . . . nothing happened. The jet stood down. The 1992 campaign moved on.
Perhaps Gov. Cuomo was never serious about seeking his party’s nomination. Perhaps he liked the attention (a little too well). Or maybe he imagined what life might be like for him were he to try to wrest the Democratic Party’s nomination that year away from the likes of Carville, Blumenthal, Stephanopoulos, Clinton, and Clinton. Instead of leading a happy, privileged life watching his son serve in the statehouse, today there would be a chalk outline where Mario Cuomo’s political career once stood.
Gov. Christie looks to be an equally shrewd politician. His supporters and the press can and will throw at him all the bouquets they can find. No one says he has to catch them.