New Jersey’s on a roll these days – well, not so much “a roll” as much as “a multi-year streak of yanking control of our great nation’s not so great attention span." The Jersey Shore, Cory Booker and Superstorm Sandy have kept the Garden State in the headlines, but one figure in particular looms larger than all of the others combined: Governor Christopher James Christie.
Christie the Hero to his admirers and Governor Hindenburg to his enemies, Christie has a larger than life personality and a physique to match. Christie is a throwback to the days when politics weren’t so scripted that an unplanned reach for a water bottle can take over the Twittersphere for a full 24 hours (that’s about a month and a half in Twitter time) and raise more than a $100,000 in the process. He yells, threatens, cajoles, occasionally gets into fights with bystanders on the boardwalk and can scarf down a donut like a champion.
Mitt Romney flirted with adding Christie to the ticket, but wound up with cold feet and went with the safer Paul Ryan. The conventional wisdom is that Christie is looking beyond his 2013 reelect to a national campaign, and would overshadow every other candidate whose name doesn’t rhyme with “pie den." I asked Medill professor (and New Jersey political veteran) Larry Stuelpnagel about what he thinks of Christie's public virtues and shortcomings and how they could matter in the future. Christie brings a lot to the table, and in doing so brings a potentially election-deciding dilemma for the GOP along with him.
First, there’s his anger. Before he can throw his hat into the ring, Christie needs to manage his legendary temper. Many politicians have short fuses (including our flawlessly-coiffed ex-governor), but Christie has displayed his in a more public way than most and people have taken notice. The pundit class has been dissecting Christie’s flareups in great detail for years. With a gubernatorial race in the rough-and-tumble state of New Jersey, there are bound to be more on the horizon. Stuelpnagel cautioned that although someone’s public image may be very different from who they are in person, those clips of Christie’ blowups on YouTube are perfect fodder for any opponent and would almost be guaranteed to play starring roles in TV attack ads. Romney was known for his "Mitt-fits", but Christie's anger is more in the vein of 2008 GOP nominee John McCain. That didn't end well for the Republicans, as McCain's temper not only got him in trouble with voters, but led to some nasty drama and infighting within his campaign team.
Christie’s bipartisan bluntness is equally important. When Superstorm Sandy slammed his state, Christie slammed Speaker John Boehner in kind, ripping him for his refusal to vote on a bill to provide aid to the affected areas on TV for the world to see. He unflinchingly embraced President Obama in a tour of the aftermath as well and has been a voice of moderation on many of the social issues that still drive a good portion of the GOP base.
Stuelpnagel sees this as Christie "trying to present himself as someone who can work with both sides of the aisle for the good of all of the people. He wants to separate himself from the, ‘it's my way or the highway,’ Tea Party element of the GOP." That move could help him in the upcoming general election in Blue Jersey, but it could cause him trouble down the line in South Carolina and other ruby red states if he chooses to run for the Republican nomination. It's getting harder to be even slightly moderate in the Republican Party of today. It's impossible to tell how the political battlefield will look in the next few years.
"At the moment there is a serious battle going on for the soul of the party. Christie is too moderate for the Tea Party wing of the GOP. Karl Rove has embarked on a plan to advance more moderate candidates like Christie in upcoming elections," Stuelpnagel said. "Who will win the battle is anyone's guess." If the Tea Party and the far right come out on top, Christie could find it impossible to navigate the treacherous primary waters.
Image in politics is more important now than ever before, but Christie brings it to a whole new level. There’s already a good deal of chatter about his size today, and a presidential run would crank it up to a whole new level. With Christie, it’s not just about image, either. "Running for President is a tremendously physical effort," Stuelpnagel said. He cites the immense physical strain that comes with even campaigning for the job – early mornings, late nights, the blistering Iowa summer heat, the raw New Hampshire winters, and the artery-clogging monstrosities of the Iowa State Fair – as a serious hurdle for Christie in the future.
And even if he’s able to take the rigorous campaign trail lifestyle, there’s the issue of public interest. If Christie were unwilling to disclose his health records, the resulting media storm would make the fight over Romney’s taxes seem like a minor kerfuffle in comparison. "If he's really serious about running for president he should go on a serious diet and start exercising. It would be good for his candidacy and his health," Stuelpnagel said.
These problems can be solved by one person, and one person alone: Christie himself. He's charismatic in a way that no other active politician is. Even President Obama can't command a crowd's attention the way Christie can when he's riffing on the end of the Twinkie (note that the video is hosted on his official YouTube channel, a move that not many govenors would go for). It's clear that he has immense political talent, and he's been able to make both the right and the left fall in love with him, albeit at different times. Few political figures today have as much potential and as many drawbacks as the Garden State Guv, and knowing his go-big-or-go-home personality, that's probably just the way he likes it.