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.
Notwithstanding the GOP money men who are urging Christie to jump in the race, it’s hard to imagine that he’d have the kind of financial advantage over the 2012 Republican field that Clinton held over his 1992 Democratic rivals. Mitt Romney has a formidable fundraising team left over from his unsuccessful 2008 White House run, and Perry hails from one of the Republican Party’s fundraising Meccas: Texas. If Christie joined the race tomorrow, does anyone really think he’d hold a 50 percent fundraising advantage over Romney or Perry by the end of 2011?
Clinton also had a favorable primary and caucus calendar in 1992. With Harkin seeking the Democratic nomination, the press and all of his rivals readily conceded that he’d easily win his home state Iowa caucuses. That meant that Clinton and the rest of the Democratic contenders didn’t have to worry about the painstaking and costly process of building a grassroots political apparatus in that state, which is usually essential for success. Basically, the 1992 Democratic presidential contest headed straight to New Hampshire and ignored the Iowa caucuses, which Harkin handily won but received not an ounce of momentum for his victory.
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But in the 2012 GOP race, the Iowa caucuses will not be an afterthought and Christie will have to think long and hard about skipping them and trying to jump start his campaign in New Hampshire whose Republican voters Romney has spent years courting.
And just like this year, in 1992 states were jockeying to hold their primaries earlier in the nominating calendar to gain more influence over the process. In mid-January of that year, the Georgia Legislature advanced its primary ahead of the rest of the Super Tuesday states by one week. The architect of that maneuver was then-Democratic Gov. Zell Miller, who backed Clinton. There was little doubt that Miller pushed an earlier Georgia primary to aid Clinton. Before that, in December, Miller had helped arrange for Clinton to recruit two of his top 1992 advisers, James Carville and Paul Begala, who had helped Miller get elected in 1990.
The early Georgia primary was a windfall for Clinton, a son of the South. With endorsements from three of the state’s top Democrats, Miller, then-Sen. Sam Nunn and civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, Clinton knocked Kerrey out of the Democratic race in that battleground and swamped Tsongas. That gave Clinton a key momentum boost which one week later helped him roll over Tsongas in the Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas primaries. Tsongas captured the Super Tuesday contests in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but Clinton was the big winner that day and he rode that wave of momentum to crush Tsongas in the decisive Illinois and Michigan primaries the following week.
Is there a state early on the GOP 2012 primary and caucus calendar that could give Christie the kind of boost that Clinton got from Georgia? In 2008, Rudy Giuliani proved that you can’t wait until the Florida primary to energize a presidential campaign.
That’s not to say that the early Georgia primary date is what sealed the nomination for Clinton in 1992. The man who would become the 42nd President of the United States turned out to be the best candidate that year. But Clinton was ready for the task and he had some significant advantages going into that presidential race.
“Ambition is a powerful force, and the ambition to be President has lead many a candidate to ignore both his own limitations and the responsibilities of the office he currently holds,” wrote Clinton in his memoir, My Life, recounting his decision not to seek the presidency in 1988. Christie might do well to ponder those words as he considers tossing his hat into the 2012 ring.