N.J. Gov. Chris Christie sizes up the White House

Move over Bruce Springsteen, there's a new "boss" in Jersey, re-elected Republican Gov. Chris Christie who is showing a sudden appetite for higher office.

Move over Springsteen, there's a new 'boss' in Jersey

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his wife, Mary Pat, wave to supporters after the Republican governor's overwhelming re-election win Tuesday in a Democratic state. (Mel Evans / Associated Press)

Tiresome political wisdom holds that you should feign indifference when asked whether you intend to run for a job you have every intention of seeking.

You answer that you're focused on some lesser goal, or humbly claim surprise that people would even be talking about such a thing, or say you "have no plans at present," or some such nonsense.

Barack Obama did it. Hillary Clinton's doing it again right now, even as she sharpens her 2016 campaign message.

Not Chris Christie, though. New Jersey's newly re-elected Republican governor told reporters that he thinks it's just great that "everybody's talking about you running for president," as one reporter put it.

Christie hasn't reached the level of awestruck media love that Barack Obama once experienced, but he's getting there.

At his first post re-election press conference, the reporter went on to ask, rather awkwardly, whether Christie's obvious White House potential would be "a major distraction" from governing New Jersey.

Christie answered with a mocking impression of the usual fey denials: "Oh, please, it's such a burden for you to be speculating about me being the next leader of the free world. Stop! 'I'm so burdened' … I mean, come on. Anybody who says that is lying."

No doubt about it, this fellow is entertaining. And, frankly, likeable.

New Jersey voters certainly think so. Christie won last week by nearly 23 points over his opponent, an amazing margin anywhere, never mind in a state that otherwise votes solidly Democrat.

"We won the Latino vote last night," Christie bragged the next day. He also did very well with women, blacks and trade unionists.

Not surprisingly, Christie is now regarded by the political-journalistic industrial complex as a serious contender, if not leading the pack, for his party's 2016 presidential nomination.

Mainstream Republican strategists drool at the prospect of putting him up against Hillary Clinton, who basically owned the blue-collar vote back in 2008 during her epic struggle with Barack Obama.

Unlike some American politicians whose attempts at populism seem a bit of a stretch — John Kerry posing in hunting garb with a shotgun, George W. Bush clearing brush, Mitt Romney in those ill-fitting jeans — Christie's working-class aura is effortlessly real.

He's a Jersey boy from moderate means who claims to have attended more than 130 Bruce Springsteen concerts.

And who admits to having wept after Springsteen, a Democratic activist, finally relented and embraced him last year after the two men worked together on the Hurricane Sandy cleanup of their beloved Jersey Shore.

Born to compromise

Like a lot of Americans, Christie is grossly overweight, and public about his struggle.

After he had surgery to tie off his stomach, he talked about his fear of leaving his children without a father.

But it's his political style that seems to endear him to voters. In an age of all-out ideological warfare, Christie is a compromiser. He prizes deals and relationships.

An avowed Democrat, N.J.'s Bruce Springsteen campaigned hard with President Barack Obama in 2012. A recent poll found Christie more popular in New Jersey than The Boss, meaning the singer. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

For example, he wants to absorb illegal immigrants, not deport them. He opposed gay marriage, but lost the fight and accepted it, saying he's happy to see a married gay couple if they're happy.

After Hurricane Sandy, he appeared beside Barack Obama, and praised him for promptly sending federal aid, infuriating Mitt Romney's campaign in the middle of the presidential election. (Christie, racing from one disaster site to the next, said accommodating Romney was the least of his concerns.)

Which is not to say he's not a conservative. He also tangled with unions over education reform, closed deep budget gaps without raising taxes, and defunded Planned Parenthood.

Last week, after Democrats once again won the state legislature, the governor repeated his philosophy: "I won. They have to deal with me. They won. I have to deal with them. It's practicality."

Vs. Hillary?

Christie is despised, of course, by hardline members of his own party who view compromise as something close to treason.

He was denied a speaking slot at the showcase CPAC conservative conference this year in favour of Tea Party howlers like Texas congressman Louie Gohmert and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cucinelli, who wanted to keep anti-sodomy laws on the books and who worked hard to impose humiliating conditions on women seeking an abortion.

(Cucinelli ran for governor in Virginia and lost, narrowly, last week, the same day as Christie's towering win.)

Christie doesn't seem fazed by the loathing that radiates from his party's Tea Party right. In fact, he seems to relish it.

Gov. Christie also campaigned with Obama, or at least that's how some of the governor's fellow Republicans saw it, during the joint cleanup over Superstorm Sandy last year. (The Associated Press)

At his victory-lap news conference, he gloated: "This is me. Some people's cup of tea? Maybe not."

To him, a Chris Christie nomination in 2016 seems a no-brainer. Looking straight into the camera at the news conference, he deadpanned: "Find another Republican in America who's won the Latino vote lately."

 But just because he'd be a threat doesn't mean he'll get the party nod.

Encouraged by the disastrous rollout of Obama's signature health-care law last month, the party's right wing is more convinced than ever that scorched earth is the way to go.

And observers like Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institution scholar who has written about extremist politics are unsure Christie could win over today's Republicans.

"His party has gone nuts in recent years. And the question is: can he drag it back into the mainstream of American politics, or will the party … insist on choosing someone who's one of their ilk?"

Meaning a Tea Party hero, like Senator Rand Paul, the Kentucky libertarian, or Ted Cruz, the Texan who helped lead the party into the politically disastrous shutdown of government services last month.

One suspects Hillary Clinton, too, would much prefer a Tea Partier at the top of the Republican ticket than the fat man from Jersey.

In a recent poll of Jersey voters, Christie emerged more popular than even Springsteen. He ain't a beauty, they seemed to say, but hey, he's all right. 

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.


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