Hamlet on the Delaware: Skittish Republicans wait on Christie, as he preps for his Mario moment
It’s starting to feel like there's a new Hamlet on the Hudson, but this time he’s on the New Jersey side of the river.
It was exactly 20 years ago that Mario Cuomo teased his fans and tormented his party’s actual candidates with his epic, months-long agonizing over whether to answer pleas to jump into the presidential race. And now Chris Christie seems intent on doing something similar to his party.
Granted, Christie has been less encouraging of the speculation than Cuomo was, at least so far. His denials of interest in a White House bid earlier this year seemed convincingly adamant. But the begging from influential Republicans that he reconsider hasn’t stopped, just as Christie hasn’t stopped taking their calls. And now he’s set to deliver a major speech on national policy at the Reagan Library in California. It will be his most high-profile venture out of New Jersey and onto the national stage in the last few months, but it won't be his first.
The speech comes as influential Republicans seem to be concluding that Rick Perry, who was talked up as a white knight when he entered the race six weeks ago, is falling miserably short of his billing as a candidate. In other words, Republicans are desperately looking for a savior once again, and if Christie’s Tuesday night address is well-received, the clamor for him to run will only increase.
The Cuomo saga makes for a good point of reference for the Christie phenomenon, because it has essentially emerged from the same conditions—a party increasingly convinced that it’s in danger of blowing an unexpectedly winnable presidential election.
Cuomo, of course, was a veteran presidential tease by the time 1991 rolled around. Just two years into his governorship, he’d brought down the house at the 1984 Democratic nomination, instantly transforming himself into every Democrat’s dream presidential candidate for 1988, a race he declined to enter. And at first, it seemed likely he’d pass on 1992 as well, after President George H.W. Bush’s approval ratings soared to over 90 percent when the Gulf War ended in March ’91. To most Democrats, the White House race was looking like a lost cause. Why waste a talent like Cuomo on that?
But by the fall, deteriorating economic conditions were taking a real toll on Bush’s standing. Democrats panicked: All of their A-list talent had passed on the race, leaving a field of unknown, untested amateurs with names like Tsongas, Harkin, Kerrey, Wilder and Clinton. Bush might actually be vulnerable, they were quickly concluding, if only they had a heavyweight candidate.
Of course, Cuomo hadn’t actually technically ruled it out. In fact, he’d actually stepped up his national activity in the spring and summer, explaining that it was his duty to stand up for his party’s principles while Bush basked in his post-war popularity. Then came the bombshell: At a breakfast for supporters at the Regency Hotel on Friday, October 11, Cuomo said that he was thinking about entering the race.
There were no cameras in the room to record his words, but the Associated Press quoted him thusly: "They said, 'Governor, we've supported you a lot of years. People are suggesting you should run for president.’ I said, 'That's very flattering.' I said, 'OK, I'll think about it.’”
And with that, Cuomo hijacked the political world for the next ten weeks. Some days, he seemed on the verge of taking the plunge, and other days he seemed ready to pull the plug. Always, though, he left wiggle room, insisting he’d make no move unless he and the Republican-controlled New York State Senate could reach an agreement on how to address a ballooning budget deficit.
“What does my heart tell me?” he asked in a late October television interview. “Go out and tell them, Mario—take your best shot, whether you win, lose or draw.”
Polls showed him trouncing the actual candidates nationally and in New Hampshire, and drawing closer and closer to Bush in trial heats. The suspense dragged on past Halloween, past Thanksgiving, and into December, when Cuomo's indecision finally met a hard deadline: December 20, the last day to file for the New Hampshire primary. A deputy was dispatched to fetch a ballot application in Concord, and when the 20th arrived, a plane from Albany was chartered. But there was still no budget deal, and at 3:30 that afternoon, when it had finally become impossible for Cuomo to jet to Concord in time to file before 5:00, he finally announced that he wouldn’t run, blaming the budget impasse. If there had been a deal, he insisted, “I would travel to New Hampshire today and file my name as a candidate."
Although even then it was complicated, since a “write in Cuomo” campaign soon emerged, and only petered out when he received just four percent in New Hampshire. And when Bill Clinton was hit with a series of scandals, calls for party leaders to engineer a draft for Cuomo were heard once again. It really wasn’t until well into the spring of 1992 that Democrats finally and completely gave up their white-knight dream, and started to realize that the guy they were stuck with might actually be a half-decent candidate.
That may well be how things now unfold on the G.O.P. side. Christie is newer to the national scene than Cuomo was, but thanks to his powerful communication skills, he occupies a similar place in the average Republican activist’s mind. Republicans find themselves stuck with one candidate who much of their base believes is a fraud, another whose erratic antics and dreadful debate skills have raised serious doubts about his general-election viability, and a case of hopeless also-rans. At the same time, President Obama’s approval ratings are stuck in the low- to mid-40’s—perilous turf for an incumbent. Just like the Democrats of 20 years ago, Republicans are quickly waking up to the reality of just how winnable the White House is, if only they can find the right candidate.
Christie has yet to drop the maybe-I-will bombshell that Cuomo did that fall, and maybe he never will. But as long as Republicans are despairing over the field and there’s still theoretically time for a new candidate, the Christie speculation will endure, especially if he delivers a good speech this week, and continues giving more like it.
While Cuomo was able to stretch things out practically to Christmas, it looks like D-Day for Christie will probably be Halloween, the deadline to file for Florida’s primary. The actual date for that contest hasn’t been set yet, but we do know that it will be early in the nominating process and critical to the outcome. Anyone who wants the Republican nomination will have to compete in it.
All these years later, there remains no consensus on why Cuomo let that plane idle in Albany. Some believe it really was about the budget, and Cuomo’s stubbornness and shortsightedness—that he was essentially willing to let Ralph Marino, who was then the State Senate’s majority leader, veto his national ambitions in order to prove some important-to-only-Mario point. Others believe his heart was never really in it, and that the idea of spending months on the road and then (maybe) four or eight years in Washington was almost traumatizing to a man who famously hated to travel outside New York. (He actually flew home after delivering his celebrated convention speech in ’84, rather than spending the night in San Francisco.)
The reasons for Christie’s reluctance are more obvious. Like family considerations; those who know him say his wife is fanatically opposed to a presidential candidacy, a sentiment that his recent health scare (an asthma episode, it turned out) probably intensified.
And then there’s this: Chris Christie genuinely loves being governor of New Jersey, a job that he devoted much of his adult life to pursuing. The state’s constitution makes him more powerful in his state than any other governor in any other state, and Christie, more than any other modern Garden State governor, excels at understanding and exploiting all of the power levers at his disposal.
Things won't always be so good for him at home. As a Republican in a very blue state, he has virtually no margin for error. His approval rating isn’t awful now, but it’s not great either.
He’s currently a slight favorite to win reelection in 2013, but throw in the ridicule and cries of home-state abandonment that would come with a losing presidential candidacy, and a run for the White House starts to look very much like an all-or-nothing bet.
Clearly, Christie relishes being the subject of so many Republican fantasies, otherwise he wouldn’t be going to the Reagan library. But when the speech is over, he'll still be a fantasy. The real question is when Republicans will finally accept it.