As Hurricane Irene bore down on the East Coast on Saturday afternoon, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had a simple message: “Get the hell off the beach.”
“You’re done. It’s 4:30 p.m. You’ve maximized your tan,” he bellowed from behind a podium, flanked by state officials. Early the next morning, as the storm hit New Jersey, leaving half a million residents without power, Christie stood vigil at an emergency-operations center, giving updates to the Sunday shows. Days later he was still on the scene, touring flooded areas as rivers swelled, in full view of TV cameras.
Critics say Christie’s tactics were typically heavy-handed and self-aggrandizing. Supporters turned “get the hell off the beach” into a rallying cry, adding to his reputation as the un-Obama: unapologetic, unceremonial, and unmistakably in charge.
It seems that every move Christie makes these days is accompanied by the drumbeats of a draft movement. Billionaire businessmen, conservative commentators, and grassroots Tea Party enthusiasts—they’ve all been begging him to get in the 2012 presidential race, despite his repeated resistance.
“It’s incredibly flattering,” Christie says, “but I’ve been pretty clear about it. I know what I want do and what I don’t want to do.” Rarely has a fat man tried harder not to get a date.
Less than two years ago, Christie was barely a blip on the national political radar screen—just a U.S. attorney with 130 successful prosecutions, 125 Springsteen shows and 300-plus pounds under his belt. But the seeker is never as popular as the sought, and petitioners point out that the last rookie New Jersey governor pushed into a presidential run was Woodrow Wilson in 1912—precisely 100 years ago. This, they argue, is Chris Christie’s moment.
On July 19, more than 50 business leaders gathered at the Racquet and Tennis Club in New York City to pitch to the governor in person—a hall-of-fame donor roster from Ken Langone to Jack Welch to Mort Zuckerman; Charles Schwab? flew in, David Koch called in, and even Henry Kissinger? made an appeal.
“His record shows that he’s got the right policy direction and the right political skills,” says Zuckerman, chairman of Boston Properties and publisher of the New York Daily News. “Christie’s been very tough and effective addressing the kind of fiscal problems that states around the nation are facing—and unlike the federal government, he can’t just print money and increase debt.”
Even after the entry of Texas Gov. Rick Perry into the race, there’s a still a nagging Chris Christie–size hole in the center-right of the field. Just what is it that makes this unlikely hero—combative, controversial, and struggling to keep his home-state approval rating above 50 percent—catnip for fiscal conservatives across the nation?
Sitting in a second-floor conference room at Fiddler’s Elbow Country Club the week before the storm, Christie is wearing a generously cut navy-blue pinstripe suit with a red tie and a light-blue shirt with his initials CJC monogrammed on the cuff. Beyond that small indulgence, the man seems without pretense—affable, engaging, and direct. His frame itself is a shock in an age of made-for-TV politicians, but he is clearly comfortable in his own skin.
“The thing I hear most is ‘authenticity,’’ he says, when I ask what supporters say when they tell him to run for president. “They feel that I say what I think and I do what I say I’m going to do.”
At a time when Washington seems to be suffering from a leadership vacuum, Christie has compiled an impressive record of achievement and deserves his reputation as the best Republican governor in the nation. He’s worked with a Democratic-controlled legislature to close a $14 billion budget gap—without raising taxes—advanced education reform, and pushed through a comprehensive pension reform that will keep the system solvent while saving New Jersey taxpayers $132 billion over the next three decades. The victories were hard-won and the protests frequently got personal, with Christie compared to Hitler by one union leader at a rally on the steps of the state capitol.
Christie shrugs off the overheated opposition. “What folks really want right now from any leader at any level of government—because they’re scared—is someone who’s just going to tell them the truth. Even if they don’t like the truth they’re being told. If they perceive it’s coming from the heart and a genuine place and you’re telling them the truth as you see it, I think you get a lot of credit for it even when they disagree with you.”
Though he is sometimes cast as the anti-Obama—in a state where 53 percent of Republicans say they think the president is a socialist—Christie does not radiate a personal dislike of the president, even going out of his way to praise the administration’s education reforms as “outstanding.” His key criticism is about leadership.
In contrast to “No Drama” Obama, Chris Christie is a hands-on, take-charge kind of guy: “If you’re an elected executive, your job is to set the agenda, to set the tone, and to force results.” He faults President Obama for retaining a leadership style more suited to a legislator than a chief executive.
“The way he handled the debt crisis is an example: he never put a plan on the table,” Christie says. “When I was trying to work through pension and benefit reform—which was protested daily for weeks by thousands of union members on the front steps of the state house—I put a plan up there first before anybody else did. I did 30 town-hall meetings in nine months across the state, arguing for why my plan would work. Then I sat in the same room with Democratic legislative leaders and negotiated a compromise that worked. That’s going to be where tough issues like Medicaid and Medicare, Social Security and tax reform get done. Put your plan out there—be bold, let people criticize it, but use it as the template for how you eventually craft compromise in divided government.”
The central practical fact of Washington life is that divided government and the Obama/Boehner/Reid split has been a recipe for dysfunction. In contrast, Chris Christie has developed a functional if occasionally combative relationship with the Democratic president of the state Senate, Steve Sweeney, who most recently called the governor a “rotten prick.”
“We’re both very strong personalities,” Christie says with half a laugh, describing what he calls “a productive partnership.” “We both put what we believe are the interest of the people first. That’s our goal when we sit down and talk … Sometimes there’s meetings that are yelling and screaming matches, but sometimes they work out really well.”
Sweeney is also leader of the local iron workers’ union, but because he backed some of Christie’s pension reforms, the AFL-CIO refused to endorse his reelection, a slight that causes Christie to rush to his frenemy’s defense. “For a guy who’s committed his entire life to the union cause to be denied the AFL-CIO endorsement … [that] shows you that the public-sector unions have gotten completely out of control,” Christie says. “There’s a divide in the union movement now because the private sector union guys are saying to themselves, ‘we want to support our union brethren but we’re the ones paying the property taxes for you to pay nothing for your health benefits.’”
The economy remains the most urgent issue in America, and any candidate being courted to run for president needs to have a plan. Christie sums up what Washington could do for job creation in two words: “Create certainty.”
“The president shouldn’t be trying to not have the issue of Obamacare decided in the Supreme Court,” Christie declares. “Eric Holder? should ask the U.S. Supreme Court to decide it so that we know what we’re dealing with. Either it’s good law or it’s bad law [but] let’s make the decision, because businesses are sitting out there on a ton of money, I think in part because they don’t know what Obamacare is going to really cost them.”
Christie’s credibility is increased by his willingness to punch right as well as left. When conservative anti-Islamist activists attacked his appointment of a Muslim-American judge, he did not hesitate to push back. “To say Sohail Mohammed is going to impose Sharia law—this is the biggest bunch of garbage I’ve ever heard,” says Christie, shaking his head. “Some of the questions he was asked in his confirmation, like what is ‘jihad’? I mean, have you asked that of any other nominee? … What’s next, are you going to ask an Italian how you make spaghetti sauce?”
It’s this no B.S., happy-warrior attitude that elevated Christie to the top of the draft pack with activists and establishment Republicans alike. He unexpectedly won a Virginia Tea Party straw poll in October 2010 and the odes from the talk-radio crowd soon made the jump from grassroots to grass tops, with business leaders singing praises along with party mandarins. Rarely do politicians find such a broad and deep swell of support at precisely the time their party is looking for a candidate who can appeal to independents and beat an incumbent president. It is foolish to think that this momentum can be preserved for four years. So why not run now?
“Cause I just don’t feel it,” Christie says leaning back in his chair. “In the end this is an extraordinarily personal decision … If I felt it, I’d think about doing it. If I don’t feel it, then I can’t do it. It’s really not a lot more complicated than that.”
So does that mean Chris Christie is willing to say with 100 percent certainty that he will not run for president in 2012? “Yes,” he says. And as simple as that, the dreams of a hundred high-profile donors and activists go up in smoke, as with the draft campaigns for Mitch Daniels?, Mike Huckabee?, and Paul Ryan before Christie.
Christie will no doubt be on the short list for a 2016 vice-presidential nominee. A hard-punching swing-state governor who won independent voters by 60 percent cannot be easily ignored. But there also is no ignoring that Christie will face a tough reelection fight in a state with 700,000 more Democrats than Republicans—he’s even earned a public rebuke from his musical idol, Bruce Springsteen?, in a local paper. If he were to lose reelection, 2012 presidential prospects would be DOA. Not running may be a gamble itself.
“I don’t worry about reelection. I feel like I’m playing with house money anyway. Nobody expected me to win this race,” Christie explains with the candor of a politician not running for president. “The more I start thinking about reelection and trying to calculate either my actions or my decisions based upon that, I’m probably moving closer and closer to not getting reelected. Be myself, be who I am, let the chips fall where they may.”