8:36 am Nov. 11, 20103
Chris Christie had no sooner returned from a two-month, 20,000-mile, 15-state tour on behalf of an extensive lineup of Republican candidates than he said he is definitely not seeking the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
Pummeled with questions, Christie, who has been governor for less than a year, told a gaggle of reporters in Trenton last week: “Short of suicide, I don’t really know what I’d have to do to convince you people that I’m not running.” Days later, on "Meet the Press," where all unambitious politicians show up on Sunday mornings, he explained his activity by saying, “I care about my country and felt like those people were the absolute best candidates to make my country a better place … That’s why I campaigned for them. I have no other agenda.”
But professional political types in New Jersey see Christie’s aggressive displays of disinterest for what they are: meaningless, if necessary, theater. His allies and enemies alike agree that he has played his Angry Governor role to great political effect so far, a notion supported by his standing in the public polls. They also agree, Republicans as readily as Democrats, that the current crop of prospective G.O.P. presidential talent outside their state is extraordinarily weak.
For better or worse, these Jersey politicians believe, the idea of their big, big-talking governor on a national ticket is anything but a joke.
As the former New Jersey governor Tom Kean put it this week in an interview with Capital: “The presidency could come to him.”
Kean, who was Christie’s honorary campaign chairman when he ran for governor and is still one of the most popular public figures in New Jersey, noted the thinness of the Republican field out there, and said that when the time comes, Christie “might be the most popular.”
Who can argue with that? Christie has already won a straw poll of Tea Party groups in Virginia, beating out Sarah Palin, buoyed by the media-virality of his excoriations of stunned Democrats in his own state for wasting time on frivolities and not acting on his proposals concerning public employee pensions, health benefits, education and ethics.
“It’s time to stop with the sterilization bills and the destroying tobacco contraband bills,” he declared last month, referring to legislative priorities that are not his own. “It’s time to stop with the foolishness.”
And according to a survey taken last week by the pollster John Zogby, Christie and Mitt Romney led the field of prospective Republican candidates for president in 2012.
All of which is to say that Christie is not at all wrong to resist the idea of a presidential run in 2012. It would be highly awkward for him to do otherwise. And a large part of his national appeal right now is predicated on the fact that he’s something different from the used-goods Romneys and Palins out there: an ordinary-looking guy whose highest ambition seems to be to knock heads together on behalf of the long-suffering people of New Jersey.
It is only when the conversation turns to 2016 that Christie budges from his firm (and convincing) rejection of the idea of a national project.
“I’m going to need a job … after 2013, you know?” he said on "Meet the Press." "So whether it’s going to be governor of New Jersey or something else, it’s going to be doing something. So maybe it will be doing that. Who knows?”
All standard stuff, said State Senator Richard Codey of New Jersey, a former Senate president and former governor. The 2012 denials, he believes, were pro forma. And as for the ambiguity about what Christie might do in the election after that?
“Who says you’re going to run in 2016?” Codey told Capital in an interview. “That’s a century in politics.”
What Christie is not saying—what he could never say, without wrecking his skillfully wrought image as a straight-talker whose only interest is in fixing his deeply distressed home state—is that he is working like hell to become the favorite, obvious, choice for vice president in 2012. Between the narrative he has constructed at home as the fearless enemy of budget-wrecking special interests, and the chits he has been busy racking up by raising money for Republican candidates from one end of the country to the other, he is putting himself in Position A to be recruited as a running mate.
Christie, whose ego may be catching up to his appetite, said last week, “Can you see me as somebody's vice president? I mean, who would be that poor guy? You know, I just don't think that my personality is necessarily suited to being No. 2.”
Sure. Neither was Lyndon Johnson’s. Or Dick Cheney’s.
Kean, diplomatically, said simply that the vice presidency “isn’t really something you run for.”
Tom Byrne, a former state Democratic chairman, and an admirer of Christie, said, "It makes a lot of sense."
“A lot of people say they don’t want to be vice president,” Byrne said. But when someone is asked to join the ticket, “the pressure builds, the country is calling.”
Or as Codey, ever the Jersey politician with his feet firmly planted in reality, put it, “If they offered him the vice presidential spot on the ticket he’d be thrilled.”
And, in fact, there’s a strong argument to be made that Christie’s personality— stinging and combative, with a got-a-problem-with-that-asshole Jersey swagger—is much better suited to vice president than president in the first place.
“He’s Cheney with a personality,” Codey said. “He’s a hardass.”
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