If Christie Is Such a Truth-Teller, Why Won't He Be Honest About a Possible Presidential Bid?

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Sept. 28 2011 1:00 AM

The Christie Shuffle

The New Jersey governor ducks answering whether he's going to join the GOP race.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie delivers remarks.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie delivers remarks during the Perspectives on Leadership Forum at the Reagan Library.

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.

Round and round the speculation has swirled over whether New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will jump into the presidential race. After his speech  Tuesday night, only one conclusion is possible: Chris Christie is not running for president until such time as he decides he will run for president, which he might announce in a sentence that abuts a previous one denying that he's running for president. Twice he was asked about his intentions. Once he seemed to say he wasn't running. The second time he suggested he was considering it. The effect could only have been improved if he had spoken while circling a mulberry bush.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

I wish Chris Christie would run. He's promising truth telling, detailed solutions to problems like entitlement growth, tax reform and foreign entanglemetns-- all of it delivered in an entertaining package. Candidates usually make stiff declarations about how honest and direct they're going to be while planning to be nothing of the kind. It would be a service and entertaining to see someone give it an actual try. It also might smoke out the other Republican candidates into venturing a few plain statements or at least fleeing with less haste from their previous ones.

Would Christie run a campaign as bold as the one he promised Tuesday night in his forceful and wide-ranging address at the Regan Library? Here's how he says he's done it in New Jersey: "It is a simple but powerful message–lead on the tough issues by telling your citizens the truth about the depth of our challenges.  Tell them the truth about the difficulty of the solutions.  This is the only effective way to lead in America during these times." Later, in his call for strong leadership he said one of America's greatest challenges was "to not become a country that places comfortable lies ahead of difficult truths."

Christie's reputation for blunt talk about everything from deficits to unions and telling off those who challenge him is what's creating the presidential buzz, so he has the aptitude. But in handling the buzz he's not exactly being a straight shooter.

When asked if he was running, Christie directed the audience to a Politico video compilation of his many denials. This seemed to close the door, though not all the way which was the kind of too cute behavior you'd hope someone like Chris Christie stand up and lampoon. But then a woman stood and implored the governor to run for president with such passion it seemed like she might come to tears. "I mean this with all my heart," she said. "Please, sir, reconsider. Go home and really think about it. Please. Do it for my daughter, do it for our grandchildren, do it for our sons. Please, sir, your country needs you to run for president."

Christie responded: "I thank you for what you're saying and I take it in and I'm listening to every word of it and feeling it. It's extraordinarily flattering, but by the same token, that heartfelt message you gave me is also not a reason for me to do it. That reason has to reside inside me." He never said no.

This suggests two options: he's either a phony truth-teller who has made up his mind and isn't being straight with the waoman or he's genuinely taking in what she says and still considering it. But if he's genuinely having a think then why in his first answer did he point everyone to the Politico video? Why not just play it on the level, especially after a speech that talked about leadership and hard truths. The second answer should have been the first answer.

There are lots of reasons for Christie to engage in this gentle deception. It's probably smart for him to be playing it the way he is. Coyness and shading and diversions are a requirement of campaigns and successful politics. But it's a reminder that promises of honesty are limited. Equally limited is the ability to change Congress and partisanship through the power of effective speaking. Both of these limitations were embedded in Christie's speech which, like the Obama speeches of 2008, was full of moving promises and bromides that fire the imagination into thinking problems can be solved from behind a magical lectern.

Christie received a standing ovation which shows the audience liked the forceful advocacy for the notion of hard truths, but tells us nothing about whether they really want to hear the real thing. They might be happy to leave it at stirring and vague.

If Christie ran, he would be our third truth-telling candidate of this cycle. The first was Tim Pawlenty. He wasn't in the race long enough to test the theory. (His position on ethanol doesn't count). Rick Perry is the second self-styled truth-teller and boy is he paying for it. The biggest problem is the one he caused himself with his blunt language. He said anyone who thought the children of undocumented workers didn't deserve an education "didn't have a heart." Sharp. From the gut. It was Christie-like statement, and according to the rules outlined in the Candid Candidate Handbook, it's the kind of direct talk voters are supposed to like even if they don't agree with it.

What did Perry get for his frank expression? It made him a target for plain-speaking Christie who singled out Perry among the GOP field in his speech. He didn't call him out by name but after disagreeing with his policy said "let me be very clear from my perspective: That is not a heartless position that is a commonsense position."

Christie proved that when you speak out, as Perry did, it makes you a target. Your opponents attack you and so do powerful forces like Christie who aren't even in the race. That's what makes candidates tentative, or dooms those that say anything mildly close to honest. This is why Mitch Daniels jokes his campaign might have been over almost before it started. Actually speaking your mind is dangerous.

Christie could announce his campaign and pay no price for reversing his position. Obama said he wasn't going to run before he decided to. Christie could also point to the woman at the Reagan library and the others who have begged him to run and say the groundswell helped him change his mind. Every candidate tries to claim there is a movement of yearning citizens behind calling them to the contest. Christie can roll the videotape. He just has to hope that he lives up to the posture he put forward in his speech or his opponents will roll the videotape too.

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