It was the strangest case of autocorrect in history. Chris Christie kept saying, "No," but Republican dreamers in green rooms and board rooms kept hearing, "Please ask me again." On Tuesday the New Jersey governor finally put an end to the requests that he run for president. "New Jersey, whether you like it or not you're stuck with me," he said at a packed press conference from the state capital.
And now back to our regular programming, the “Romney and Not Romney” show. For those just tuning in, the role of Not Mitt Romney is being played for this half-hour by Herman Cain, who replaced Rick Perry, who inherited the role from Michele Bachmann. Christie could have been the most successful Not Romney to date, but as it turns out, he prefers the role of Not Running. Team Romney was so happy that when they got early word they called major donors to let them know. The campaign can now reach out to those who had been awaiting Christie's decision.
The Republican race for the presidency is now set. There may be more guest appearances, but the nominee is going to come from the current cast. Despair was the emotion animating the Christie candidacy, which wasn't so much a shadow campaign as a zombie campaign. No matter how many times Christie tried to kill the movement, it reappeared, enlivened by pundits, party insiders in the thrall of blunt talk, and an unsettled field.
There is an unresolved feeling about Romney. He is atop the polls again, but three-quarters of the voters say they want someone else. Even the majority of his supporters say they could still change their mind.
But there's no alternative for the conservatives who think Romney isn't one of them, or for those who might like Romney but want a little more pep in their candidate. Perry is in free-fall, his poll numbers plummeting, beset by troubles of his own making and out of left field. Cain has captured the imagination of a segment of the party, risen in the polls, but seems more like a boomlet—a crowd favorite lacking discipline or organization.
This isn't unusual. Voters like to have a say in the matter of who the presidential candidate is. This was true even when Ronald Reagan—yes, Ronald Reagan—ran in 1980. Republicans didn't just coronate him. They gave George H.W. Bush victories in Iowa, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Then, when Bush ran for president in 1988, the party that supposedly picks the person whose turn it is chose someone other than the sitting vice president in the Iowa caucuses.
The nominating process is messy. The Christie boomlet was therapy for those who couldn’t handle the uncertainty. It was not a groundswell. A CBS poll shows that only 32 percent of those who said they would vote in a Republican primary wanted a Christie run, while 38 percent did not. In a Washington Post poll, 42 percent want him to run. Poll respondents didn’t know him that well, which accounts for those low numbers, but it would have been a challenge for him to define himself in such a short period of time before the first contest.
Christie had been a firm “no” throughout the months of courtship. A group of longtime New York and New Jersey Republican money-men promised to give him instant cash. He talked about running with everyone from George W. Bush to Henry Kissinger to Nancy Reagan. All were reportedly encouraging. In one of these conversations Christie left the impression he was seriously considering a run.
The volume of the entreaties is what made him reconsider. At his press conference he told the story of a Nebraska farmer who sent a Fed Ex to Christie’s children, telling them to let their father off the hook about missing games and not spending time with them if he ran. At one point, he said, in the middle of the night, his wife told him: "If you want to run, go for it. Don't worry about me and the kids."
If he'd decided to run, perhaps Christie could have overcome his soft poll numbers. But conversations with party activists suggest he would have gotten a frosty reception. He held moderate positions on such issues as immigration and civil unions. He would have had to defend these while simultaneously building a fundraising organization and political operation.
Plus, the instincts that made Christie attractive as a governor might have been hard to translate. Blunt talk may work in New Jersey, or in Texas, but as Perry’s campaign is proving, it doesn’t always translate well to the national stage. (Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana worried this issue might have doomed his candidacy.) Lamar Alexander, a governor who twice ran for president, has said the difference between campaigning statewide and campaigning nationally is the difference between "playing in your backyard versus playing in the NBA."
In addition to the many logistical and political hurdles to the Christie candidacy, there were conceptual issues. One of the chief Republican complaints against President Obama is that he lacked experience—but Christie has served a shorter amount of time as governor of New Jersey than Obama did as senator from Illinois before he ran for president. Another chief complaint against Obama is that he just mouths pretty words. When I talked to Republicans about why they like Christie, they almost always mentioned his style of speaking.
Of course, Sarah Palin still circles the field—but it's too late, especially with the Iowa caucuses now possibly 35 days earlier than originally scheduled. Besides, her poll numbers are abysmal, with 66 percent of Republicans saying they don’t want her to run, in a recent ABC/Washington Post poll. Any more flirtations or late candidacies run the risk of making the party look ridiculous and wasting more energy on what is essentially an intramural feud in a year when Republicans have of a very good chance of winning the presidency.
In the end, Christie’s decision shows prudence and restraint, although he did go on—his press conference lasted almost an hour and was so chatty it seemed he might dandle one of the members of the press on his knee. He whacked Obama for his lack of leadership, helping the eventual GOP nominee, and repeatedly he praised his own state, using the occasion of turning down a chance at presidential power as an opportunity to build his power base as governor. These are wise moves showing political and strategic savvy. Let the speculation commence: Christie 2016, anyone?