No one weighing a run for the Republican presidential nomination has had a better year than Chris Christie — and it’s about to get better.
Christie is widely expected to roll up a massive victory in his reelection bid on Nov. 5 in New Jersey, a win in a blue state that will form the foundation of the argument for his now-expected run for president in 2016.
It’s the latest piece of good news for Christie in the first 10 1/2 months of 2013. Consider:
* As congressional Republicans feuded among themselves in the early days of the year over allocating federal funds to benefit the victims — many of whom were in New Jersey — of Hurricane Sandy, Christie went ballistic, savaging his party and its leaders. “There is only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims,” Christie thundered. “The House majority and their speaker, John Boehner.”
* In a speech to the Republican National Committee in August, Christie made very clear that his priority in politics was winning. That was also his second and third priority. He derided “folks who believe that our job is to be college professors,” adding: “If we don’t win, we don’t govern. And if we don’t govern, all we do is shout to the wind. And so I am going to do anything I need to do to win.” The Republican political class (silently) cheered that line of thinking, as did many of the party’s mega-donors who prize pragmatism over strict adherence to core principles and, oh by the way, provide the seed money for presidential candidates.
* The national political story line for much of the summer and fall has been dominated by the government shutdown, the debt-ceiling debate and the general malaise directed at Washington from the electorate. Christie, as a governor, steered clear of much of that mess — telling CBS in the days leading up to the shutdown that “I think it’s always irresponsible if you’re running the government to be advocating for shutting it down. That by definition is a failure. You gotta work it out.”
The year in Republican politics then has been defined by two interrelated narrative strains: (1) The civil war within the party between mathematicians and priests and (2) The disgust — among independents and even many Republicans — about how Washington is being run and “working.”
In the civil war within the party, Christie has emerged as the standard-bearer of the practical/mathematician wing in 2013. Perhaps the clearest example of that fact came earlier this week when he announced that he would not appeal a state Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the legality of gay marriage in the Garden State. (Christie had previously vetoed a bill legalizing gay marriage that was passed through the Democratic-controlled legislature.) In explaining his decision to walk away from the court fight, Christie’s administration said he didn’t see a point in charging at a political windmill. That’s a stark contrast to the fight over the past month or so in Washington, where a bloc of Republicans led by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz helped to force a government shutdown under the (mistaken) belief that they could extract concessions from the White House on President Obama’s health-care law.
When it comes to Washington being broken, Christie, too, has benefited mightily. His political brand, almost since the moment he was elected in 2009, has been as the tough-talking (some of his critics would say bullying) outsider who tells it how it is, party politics be damned. That brand can get him into trouble (see: his praise of Obama’s handling of Hurricane Sandy during the final days of the 2012 campaign), but, by and large, it is the thing that distinguishes him from the crowd.
Given that, it’s hard to imagine 2013 working out better for Christie in terms of the political machinations in Washington. While Republicans in D.C. are obsessed with filibusters and parliamentary procedures, Christie is making executive decisions and rolling up a massive reelection win in a state that Republicans haven’t won at the presidential level since 1988. Having “senator” or “representative” before your name is almost always a bad thing in presidential politics (Barack Obama was the first senator elected directly from that chamber to the presidency since John F. Kennedy in 1960), but it’s an even worse thing when everyone hates Washington — like right now.
All of the above is not to say that Christie won’t have real problems — particularly with the GOP’s tea party base — when (whoops, if) he runs for president in 2016. Christie’s blunt talk and focusing on “winning > principled losses” will turn off many Republicans who believe the reason they don’t control the White House (and haven’t since 2008) is because the party nominated two insufficiently conservative candidates in ’08 and 2012. But, in truth, Christie was never going to be the tea party candidate in the field. That will be a fight between Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
What Christie has done in 2013 is position himself as the go-to candidate for voters (and donors) who think the single most important thing in 2016 is nominating a candidate who can win the White House, not win an ideological battle. Christie is their guy now. That can — of course — change, and might if someone like Jeb Bush decides to run. But, at the moment, Christie is at the top of that heap, which, despite all of the changes happening within the Republican Party, is a very good place to be.