Chris Christie couldn’t have been any more obvious about his 2016 intentions if he had begun his victory speech Tuesday with the words “My fellow Americans” and ended it with a balloon drop.
He offered New Jersey as an example for national healing. “Tonight,” he said, “a dispirited America, angry with their dysfunctional government in Washington, looks to New Jersey to say ‘Is what I think’s happening really happening? Are people really coming together?’”
Trenton, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
None of this was subtle, but Christie had certainly earned it. Almost every decision he’s made — sometimes shamelessly so — has been geared to making the rubble bounce in his re-election and then using his crushing victory as a credential in an incipient national campaign. He succeeded brilliantly on his own terms.
In a state President Barack Obama won by 17 points in 2012, Christie won 60 percent overall. He won Latinos outright and took 21 percent of the black vote. He won women and men. He won high-school graduates and people with advanced degrees. He won people making more than $200,000 and people making less than $50,000.
These numbers are eye-popping. If they were automatically transferable to the national stage, Hillary Clinton would have to give it up and content herself with giving $200,000 speeches for Goldman Sachs forevermore. But they aren’t.
As Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center points out, essentially uncontested races against badly overmatched opponents aren’t a predictor of anything. William Weld won 70 percent of the vote and every county in Massachusetts in his 1994 re-election as governor, then lost by 7 points to John Kerry in a 1996 Senate race in which the map of Massachusetts snapped back to its natural state.
Granted, getting into a position where you can run essentially uncontested against a badly overmatched opponent in a major race is an achievement in itself.
Christie’s implicit pitch to the national GOP will probably be that he’s to Republicans in the 2010s what Bill Clinton was to the Democrats in the 1990s. In other words, he offers a different kind of politics that can potentially unlock the presidency after a period of national futility for his party.
Like Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas in the 1980s, Christie is operating on hostile partisan and cultural territory, and managing to thrive by co-opting or neutralizing natural enemies.
Like the “explainer-in-chief,” Christie has a knack for public persuasion. The New Jersey governor’s relentless town halls during the fight for his public-sector reforms were model examples of making an argument fearlessly and effectively.
Like Clinton, who so famously felt people’s pain, Christie connects. He has a reputation for confrontation — rightly — but Christie’s emotional range is much broader. His response to Hurricane Sandy was, in part, a great act of empathy.
What Clinton had that Christie evidently lacks is a well-thought-out approach to his party’s predicament. As a “New Democrat,” Clinton had a different governing philosophy, expressed in a raft of new policy proposals. Chris Christie has an affect and a style of governance.
If Christie’s message to the GOP is merely that it should look to what he did in the Garden State and be as wonderfully unifying as he is, it deserves to flop. It could come off as boastful and hectoring, and about as original as the average political discussion on NPR. Coupled with his various departures from conservative orthodoxy, it could be toxic.
For Christie truly to capitalize on his opportunity, he will need a conservative reform agenda, geared to the bread-and-butter concerns of ordinary voters. In his victory speech, Christie spoke of being “one of you.” As Henry Olsen writes, Christie’s potential is in matching that Everyman appeal with substance. He could set out to make himself a Republican by and for the middle class in a departure for the contemporary party.
Congratulations on the big win, governor. Now show us what’s next.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.