Twenty years ago this week, Bill Clinton formally kicked off his bid for the presidency. And last weekend former staffers gathered in Little Rock, Ark., to commemorate that historic campaign, which ironically now serves as an inspiration of sorts for fans of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who are urging him to make a run for the White House in 2012. Their reasoning goes something like this: It’s already been an unpredictable GOP campaign season with contenders like Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry rising and falling with each Republican debate, and as Clinton showed in 1992, it’s not too late for Christie to join the fray.
But if anything, the Clinton candidacy should serve as a flashing red light for Christie’s supporters, not an invitation for him to jump into the 2012 GOP presidential contest.
For starters, Clinton had been laying the groundwork for a White House run for years, long before he announced his 1992 candidacy. Indeed, in July of 1987, Clinton had summoned several of his political confidants to the governor’s mansion in Little Rock for what many assumed was going to be a declaration for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. After weighing the pros and cons of a candidacy that year, Clinton developed second thoughts and decided against running. When he subsequently told a few hundred supporters and a clutch of political reporters who had gathered at the nearby Excelsior Hotel expecting an announcement speech, many were stunned.
Clinton was a rising star among Democrats by the summer of 1987: He’d been elected and reelected governor four times—recovering from his 1980 defeat with a comeback in 1982—overhauled his state’s underperforming education system, and was chairman of the National Governors Association. After he passed on running in 1988, Clinton continued to build out his national profile—and just as important, a national network of admirers—by serving as the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association from 1989-90, and the Democratic Leadership Council in 1990-1991. The latter post was critical to Clinton’s development of his “New Democrat” strategy, a more centrist governing philosophy that would become a cornerstone of his 1992 campaign.
Even when Clinton was on vacation, he was busy cultivating his network that would provide financial and intellectual firepower for his 1992 run. He and his formidable spouse, Hillary, were regulars in the 1980s at the Renaissance Weekend, a non-partisan collection of prominent CEOs, entrepreneurs, politicians, authors, scientists, judges, and even a few journalists, who gathered over New Year’s weekend to discuss a wide range of public policy issues.
Bill Clinton had spent years thinking about national issues and refining his approach to them before he eventually sought the White House. He’d also developed relationships with literally hundreds of politicians and policy thinkers inside his party and assembled an unparalleled network of friends and supporters by the time he kicked off his presidential campaign in the fall of 1991. Can the current Garden State chief match that or even come close?
Christie has been governor for less than two years. Before that he had a successful eight-year career as a corruption-busting U.S. attorney for New Jersey. Previously he worked for about a dozen years and become a partner in a Cranford, N.J., law firm. He specialized in corporate securities work. Prior to winning the governorship in 2009, Christie’s political career consisted of one three-year term on the Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders, elected in 1994. He lost a GOP primary for a state Assembly seat in 1995 and lost his renomination as a GOP Freeholder in 1997.
This isn’t to denigrate or dismiss Christie’s resume. But it doesn’t seem like one that has given him much opportunity to master national issues or build the kind of alliances and friendships that can pay dividends in a run for the White House. Many of the folks who have become converts to Christie aren’t likely to stick with him when the going gets tough on the campaign trail—as it inevitably does—and many probably aren’t willing to open their wallets very wide right now.
When Clinton launched his presidential campaign in October 1991, he was facing a bunch of Democratic rivals who lacked a strong financial base of support. At the end of 1991, Clinton had easily out-raised the other leading contenders; Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, then-Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., and the late Sen. Paul Tsongas, D-Mass., who would eventually become Clinton’s toughest opponent. Clinton raised about $3.3 million by the end of 1991 (don’t laugh, fundraising was much more modest that year than in most presidential election cycles) compared to his nearest financial challenger, Harkin, who collected around $2.2 million.
Clinton’s financial network helped him survive a downdraft in early 1992—accusations of an extramarital affair and draft-dodging during the Vietnam War and a second-place finish to Tsongas in the New Hampshire primary. Despite a brutal February that year, Clinton outraised Tsongas, his chief opponent, by a margin of more than two-to-one that month.