F.A.Q.: What is America about to learn about Chris Christie?

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Chris Christie. (Via hobokencondos flickr stream.)
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A conversation with Salon political writer Steve Kornacki about what to expect from Chris Christie.

Josh Benson: Is there a way to explain away Chris Christie's anonymously wired Thinking About It stories, other than to say that he's really actually thinking about doing this?

Steve Kornacki: I don't think so—not at this point. In the run-up to the Reagan Library speech you could say they were trying to build suspense so there'd be a big audience. And you could say his coy answer to the lady who practically fell to her knees begging him to run was just him being nice: how can you just shoot down such a heartfelt, ego-flattering appeal like that on the spot? But now that the Ledger is reporting this several days after the fact, I can't see how it's anything but what they say: He really is thinking about it. It's a shift.

Josh: There are, as you noted, a number of arguments against a Christie candidacy, based both on conditions that are particular to Christie and on more conventional notions about the time a candidate normally requires to build up a campaign infrastructure, how a northeasterner will play with social conservatives in Iowa, etc.

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Are any of these obstacles significant enough to make Christie's entry into the race a worse idea than it apparently seems to be to much of the Republican Party?

Steve: See, I think that's just the thing: The fact that so many Republicans are clamoring for it is the solution to those very real practical problems about late entry. If this were a race crowded with serious candidates, then yeah, there's no way he could put anything together. I don't mean to diminish the infrastructure/fund-raising/ballot access too much, because it's obviously extremely important.

But if the Republicans really want Christie, they can make it happen.

And the ideological stuff: I swear, there is something about this guy that makes a lot of people (especially Republican base voters) want to like him and vote for him. That's powerful. He's an unusually charismatic communicator—better by far than Mitt, better by far than Perry, and better by far than just about any other politician on the national scene today. I really believe that.

And the power of that is that it takes those Republicans who want to like him and gives them an incentive to work backward—they decide they want to vote for him, then rationalize a way to do it despite his immigration history or whatever. And he can work with them, too. I don't think he'd run as a defiant proponent of illegal immigrants' rights. He'll modulate his rhetoric, stress areas of agreement, etc. And I think they'll go along with him.

Josh: So about those communications skills. You've been saying for a long time now (since way before Christie was an important enough national figure to have to deny that he had designs on a presidential race), that his political skills are routinely underestimated. People who haven't seen him in action dismiss him as a big buffoon, and then, like some Susan Boyle in a suit, he opens his mouth and all the right sounds come out.

But now that his rhetorical ability is no longer a novelty, where should the bar be set for him if he gets into this thing? Like, at his first debate against Romney and Perry, will people just expect him to destroy them?

Steve: The bar will be high, I think, and that's the risk. With this much savior hype and with so little time left, I think he'd need to show right away that he really is what he's been billed as, and to make Romney and Perry shrink in comparison.

I think he's capable of doing it. I've thought that all year as I've watched these G.O.P. debates, that Christie would just clean the floor with these guys. But he has to do it right away. Otherwise, the people who are saying he'll be just another Fred Thompson or Wesley Clark will be right.

Josh: Are people saying that? The "draft" movements for those two always felt a little half-hearted* to me. I think if Christie gets in, it will be somewhat more of a reaction to an actual market opportunity, no?

Steve: Yes, totally agree. I keep coming back to the q-and-a at that Reagan speech, partly because the performance was just vintage Christie—I saw him doing that kind of thing years ago, when he'd do events as U.S. Attorney in New Jersey. But also because of the crowd's response. It was electric; you could sense the thirst not just for a new candidate, but for this particular new candidate. I never saw Wesley Clark or Fred Thompson get that kind of reception in the run-up to their campaigns. I never saw Perry get it, for that matter.

Josh: He's also got this nice creation story that he told at the Reagan Library, that he's been able to make New Jersey work because he's a plain-spoken guy who doesn't care about party labels and tells it how it is. How accurate is that?

Steve: Shockingly, not very! He has been a very successful governor, in terms of getting his agenda through the legislature and understanding how to use the many different power levers at his disposal. He understands the New Jersey governorship far, far better than his recent predecessors (unless you count Dick Codey, the interim governor after McGreevey resigned, who was also very good at being governor).

However, he's promoting the idea that a "bipartisan" spirit is what's been behind his success. That's absurd. Christie has not "won" the argument and brought liberals in the legislature to his his side, or at least forced them to compromise. All he's done is team up with two regional political bosses—George Norcross in the south and Steve Adubato Sr. in Essex County—who might not even be recognizable as Democrats by the standards that are used at the national level.

Those two bosses didn't like Corzine, probably helped Christie win in '09, and have supplied the key Democratic votes in the legislature for his agenda. The Democratic state Senate president (Steve Sweeney) is one of Norcross' closest friends, and his entire political rise has been built on his ties to Norcross. The Assembly Speaker actually works for Essex County, where the county executive (Joe DiVincenzo) is Adubato's protege.

There's no bipartisan magic to this. Just look at the roll call for the pension vote: Every Democrat in the legislature opposed it ... except the Norcross and Adubato folks. What Codey (who was ousted as Senate president by the Norcross-Adubato forces) has said is right: Those two generally don't care how their legislators vote, but when they do, they always get their way. They've cared about Christie's big-ticket items, and they've gotten their way.

Josh: OK, so let's say he gets in, brushes aside Perry, Romney and the non-credibles, and wins the nomination. How do the Democrats run against Christie, actually? I'm thinking the Jon Corzine campaign against him a couple of years ago, which amounted to Too Fat for New Jersey, won't be a model.

Is it just going to be a matter of trying to tie him to whatever very conservative promises he'll be compelled to make in the course of the primary? Or is there a less-generic line of attack that simply hasn't been tried on him yet?

Steve: I'm sure they'd try that. I also think it will be harder to tie him to the G.O.P. label, which is still extremely unpopular, than it would Perry (who just comes across like the embodiment of the G.O.P. base) or Romney (whose generic-ness probably lends itself to that sort of thing).

The better bet (and this applies in the primary season and in the general) is that he hurts himself. He really has a temper and is prone to lash out, and it can cause trouble. He got frustrated a while back with a 76-year-old female state senator who criticizes him a lot—and snapped to the press that they should "take the bat out" for her. Imagine that kind of behavior on the national stage, where every intemperate remark becomes a National Crisis. Controlling his temper, or at least channeling it in a non-unhelpful way, would probably be his biggest challenge.

Josh: So basically you're saying this whole campaign is going to play out like every cross-examination scene on every TV show ever where the goal is to passive- aggressively bait the defendant until he explodes, showing himself to be the dangerous psychopath his enemies knew he was all along?

Steve: Pretty much. But the flip-side is that Christie is really skilled at taking hostile questions and turning them around and making the question-asker look bad (and himself look very good). That's what a lot of his YouTube hits are about.

Josh: What do you think is actually Christie's timeline here? Do you still think this is building toward a plane-on-the-tarmac moment?

Steve: Realistically, I think it's the next week or so. It's built to this moment, they've put it out there that he's thinking about it, and everyone knows the clock is ticking. If he's really going to do it, I think he knows he has to jump now. So I think we'll hear a decision fast. But if it's a no, I'm sure the wishful speculation will linger. Like I wrote this week, some Democrats were still pushing Cuomo in the spring of '92, months after he left the plane idling. The Cuomo talk persisted as long as Democrats believed they were doomed with their existing field. The same thing is at work here, I think.

 

*UPDATE: Ellen Goldstein writes: "I would like to take strong issue with Josh's statement that the draft movement for Wes Clark was 'half-hearted,' NOTHING could be further from the truth. We were extremely full-hearted, and many of us are still in touch and disappointed with the way things in the country progressed. (I cannot speak about the Fred Thompson draft.)"

She's right. "Half-hearted" is a stupid way to put it, especially since I met and talked to lots of Wesley Clark supporters in 2004 who were anything but half-hearted about him, and who went to a lot of trouble to get him into the race and keep him there for as long as they could.

I meant to make a general statement about the actual levels of support that existed for Clark in 2004 and for Thompson in 2008 in their respective parties, as compared to the amount of hype that attended their draft movements. But I meant no reflection on the enthusiasm or sincerity of their individual supporters.