Although his stock as a Republican vice presidential contender appears to be tumbling, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie continues to ride high as his party’s unrivaled Straight Talker in Chief.
During a speech in Washington this week, the combative Christie accused President Obama of trying to “extort” states to accept expanded Medicaid coverage in his health care reform law. He praised the Supreme Court for knocking out that provision while upholding the law’s constitutionality.
“I’m really glad that a majority of the Supreme Court still supports the proposition . . . that extortion is still illegal in the country even when done by the President of the United States,” Christie told a gathering at the Brookings Institution.
He blasted his critics back home for asserting that his tough budget-cutting measures and state employee pension reforms would lead to the “end of the world as we know it” and constitute “throwing Grandma off the cliff.” He also offered his unvarnished advice to Washington politicians: “You can’t lead by being a mystery. You can’t lead by being an enigma. You can’t lead by being aloof. You can’t lead by being programmed.”
Did he have had in mind the cool and calculating Mitt Romney when he offered that last bit of advice, as some political analysts suspect? There’s no way of knowing. But the rotund, shoot-from-the-hip Christie sounded and looked like a man very much unconcerned about offending anyone during his speech.
"We shouldn't be listening to political consultants whispering in our ears, 'Say as little as possible,' we shouldn't be listening to those voices that say, 'Just use the party doctrine and don't stray,’” Christie said. “We should be telling people how we think and how we feel and let them judge us up or down.”
HARD CHARGER FROM THE GARDEN STATE
A lawyer and former U.S. attorney, Christie, 49, broke onto the national scene in early 2011 as a tough-minded conservative governor who was willing to take on New Jersey’s state government bureaucracy and public employee unions to wipe out a big budget deficit. He burnished his bulldog reputation by publicly upbraiding state workers and residents who took exception to his tough fiscal policies. And he made national headlines last year during Hurricane Irene for ordering people to “get the hell off the beach” in his state or risk injuring themselves or others.
Not surprisingly, the news media and GOP operatives soon hailed him as a potential candidate for president, especially in light of what appeared to be a relatively weak field of Republican candidates. But after much soul searching and political soundings, Christie said last October he wouldn’t run for president in 2012.
“Now is not my time,” he announced in Trenton. “I have a commitment to the people of New Jersey… . People sent me to Trenton to get a job done, and I’m just not prepared to walk away.”
Christie also brushed off talk of running for vice president, saying, “I don’t think there’s anybody in America who’d say my personality is best suited to being a No. 2.”
A week later, on Oct. 11, Christie endorsed Romney in Hanover, N.H., just hours before the Republican candidates were set to gather for a debate at Dartmouth College. Christie threw his support to Romney at a critical juncture, just when Texas Gov. Rick Perry had fallen back in the polls and businessman Herman Caine was surging in the polls.
“America cannot survive another four years of Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney's the man we need to lead America and we need him now,” Christie said. With that, Christie was suddenly in contention to become the VP nominee, if Romney managed to win the nomination.
NOT LEADING THE PACK
Since then, though, Christie has lost altitude in the Republican vice presidential sweepstakes, while Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and former governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota have surged to the head of the pack in the speculation.
At least part of the problem for Christie is that his most salient and appealing traits – including his blunt talk and his willingness to shake up the status quo – seem anathema to Romney’s painstakingly thoughtful and cautious approach. Even those who believe Christie would make an energizing, crowd-pleasing member of the GOP ticket acknowledge the downsides.
“His personality certainly has the potential to take attention away from Romney – and it’s never a good thing for a nominee to be overshadowed by his No. 2,” says political scientist Chris Ellis of Bucknell University. “Christie’s style, while it works for New Jersey, won’t play as well in the heartland, or in places like New Hampshire.”
“There are many reasons Romney might want to keep Christie off the ticket,” wrote the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in a column for Bloomberg View. “Christie has an excessively large mouth. He is easily provoked. He turns up late to speeches on occasion. He doesn’t quit when he’s ahead. He is no one’s idea of a deputy. He comes from a state the Republicans can’t win, no matter what Romney does. He is a Northeastern laissez-faire Republican mistrusted by social conservatives. And, of course, he is unwieldy and overweight and makes Romney look anorexic by comparison.”
“He was always a second-tier choice because there is real risk in picking him,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “He doesn’t add New Jersey [to the GOP column], and he’s likely to generate controversies along the trail. Romney wants to keep the focus on Obama and the economy.”
Another factor working against Christie is one of personal chemistry – or the lack thereof. “Romney and Christie are friendly, but they just don't seem like a match to me,” Sabato said. “Romney is super-controlled, an ultra-planner. Christie can be volatile, somewhat unpredictable and uncontrolled, and cut from a very different cloth in most respects.”
“I also noted the Romney staff leaked that Christie had been late to a meeting with Romney,” Sabato added. “Tardiness is a no-no in Romney World, a sign of insufficient organization and courtesy. In sum, I just don’t see the fit being a good one.”
Craig Shirley, a Ronald Reagan biographer, told The Fiscal Times that while Christie fits the bill at one level, because he has “a populist appeal outside of the elite country-club wing of the Republican Party” that Romney represents, “a lot of conservatives hold him at arm’s length because of his views on [social] issues. There are questions on the part of the right.”
Shirley added, “At some point, you get beyond personality politics and you start wearing out your welcome. There are only three resources in any presidential campaign: people, time and money. Romney needs time to make a case against Barack Obama. And every day that’s focused on Bain Capital, or focused on Romney in the Hamptons, or on Romney hobnobbing with elites, or on the personality of a Chris Christie, that’s one less day to make the case against Barack Obama.”