The Wall Street Journal reports: “For two years, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie crisscrossed the country to help his fellow Republican governors, raising money and campaigning for their election. And yet the nation’s 31 Republican governors, faced with a wealth of choices in the still-forming presidential field, so far aren’t racing to back Mr. Christie in his anticipated White House campaign.” There are, it seems, many viable alternatives who do not raise the same concerns that Christie does: “Republican governors gathered here said they were eyeing an array of fellow chief executives who may campaign for the White House, among them Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and former Govs. Jeb Bush of Florida and Rick Perry of Texas. Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence are also thought to be considering campaigns.”
It is not hard to see how Christie lost the inside track with donors and establishment Republicans. His reputation as a lively, blunt, competent and inclusive Republican seems like a distant memory. He is now seen as erratic, gaffe-prone and lacking substance. This is the antithesis of what his natural audience (businesspeople, moderates, big donors, discerning independents) looks for. He seems to have morphed into a moderate version of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) minus the foreign policy acumen, or perhaps the reincarnation of the 2012 version of then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry. There are lessons here for all the 2016 contenders.
First, you cannot win the presidential nomination on personality. You have to be able to get in front of a room of donors, across from an interviewer or in front of a crowd and sell yourself as a man with a plan — how to win, how to govern, how to appeal to non-Republicans, how to bring the party together. You can dazzle them with wonkery, as Bush is doing, or impress supporters with grit and focus, as Walker does. But you cannot vamp your way through a presidential race. In a long campaign, recycling the same shtick (be it Jersey guy or tea party rabble-rouser) wears thin, especially when there is no interesting agenda being offered.
Second, running for president takes a unique combination of humility and hubris. You have to believe you can do the most demanding job in the world and at the same time know where you need help. That means building a team and delegating, and it means knowing what you don’t know. The knowledge deficit might be in foreign policy, or it might be in handling the mainstream media, but if you don’t attack weaknesses early, errors will mount, you’ll lack the time for self-education and your opponents will pounce.
Third, you cannot get sucked into any single sliver of the electorate. Bush must win over conservatives; Walker must win over those skeptical about his readiness for the national stage, his finesse with the media and his foreign policy sophistication. They have to add to what they have. By contrast, Christie spent the last six months losing the support he had among nervous establishment types without getting new support in the base.
Fourth, you have to exceed expectations. Christie’s YouTube fame set the bar very high for entertainment value and for pugnaciousness, and when he now tries to dial it down he comes across flat. Bush will have to meet and exceed expectations when it comes to conservative values and fire-in-the-belly political tone, making sure that the base knows he wants its support and that he can throw a punch against the Democrats. No one has done a better job with the expectations game than Perry, who now exudes executive gravitas and demonstrates depth on foreign policy. Walker, whose has been underestimated for his entire political career, needs to again demonstrate that he has sufficient fire and a big enough worldview to be president.
Bush, Walker, Perry and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) may all benefit from Christie’s declining fortunes. But they run the risk of repeating his errors unless they offer a meaty agenda, balance confidence with self-awareness, avoid playing to one part of the electorate at the expense of others, and meet or exceed expectations.