It took a proud Jersey girl in the audience -- now living in California and quoting her Italian mother -- to declare what some Republicans across the country are saying to Chris Christie. “She told me to tell you. You gotta run for president,” the woman said at Christie's appearance at the Reagan Library this week. Many reporters wanted to know how he’d respond to that as well.
Christie, the funny and blunt governor of New Jersey, clearly is our latest political hankering. For months, everyone from ABC’s Diane Sawyer to NBC’s Jamie Gangel has asked him some version of “The Question.” And even though he has repeatedly said no, the questions keep coming. “Short of suicide, I don’t really know what I’d have to do to convince you people that I’m not running,” he said in New Jersey last November. “I’m not running!” Everyone laughed.
But at the Reagan Library, he revealed the best reason yet why the buzz won’t go away. “What kind of crazy egomaniac would you have to be to say, ‘
Oh, please stop, stop?’” he said.
There you go. No one who has the ego to get into politics in the first place really minds being the object of everyone’s desire. Viewed that way, it’s hard to fault Christie for enjoying the ride. If no one believed him when he was Shermanesque about it last winter, why not take the pleading phone calls now?
Assuming that actual filing deadlines will have to pass before Christie, Sarah Palin, and Donald Trump stop the serial flirtation, it’s important to remember that we have been on this merry-go-round before. Draft movements spring up like clover every election year, and it seems the only way to end speculation is to actually decide to run. Or, as NewsHour political editor David Chalian told Judy Woodruff the other night, “All these candidates know their very best day on the campaign trail is the day before they get into race.”
Think back only a few months ago, when party activists and reporters alike held their breaths until they turned blue, panting for Texas Gov. Rick Perry to join the race. At first he said no. Then he said maybe. Then, stomping in dramatic fashion on the Iowa Straw poll, he changed his mind. Immediately Michele Bachmann – who had been beloved until that moment – faded. And immediately, the Perry scrutiny began. He was too liberal on immigration. Too conservative on everything else. Too clever for his own good. Too dumb. I’ve read it all.
Even before Perry, 2011 “draft” movements sprouted for Minnesotan Bachmann, Indiana’s Mitch Daniels, Mississippi’s Haley Barbour and Utah’s Jon Huntsman. Daniels and Barbour passed; Bachmann and Huntsman did not. Predictably, the longing for Daniels in some quarters is starting up again.
For more evidence of this mad cycle, one need only glance back at Colin Powell in 1995 and Fred Thompson in 2007. By getting out before he got in, Powell preserved his popularity. Thompson, last seen, was hawking reverse mortgages on cable television. "There's no off-Broadway," Thompson told the Washington Examiner’s Byron York. "It's all compressed. You don't get a chance to knock the rough edges off."
And then, of course there is Sarah Palin, who is so determined to leave her options open that she is apparently redefining the presidency itself as something that might get in the way of her larger mission.
It’s worth quoting what she told FOX’s Greta VanSusteren on Tuesday.
“Is a title worth it? Does a title shackle a person? Are they -- someone like me, who's maverick -- you know, I do go rogue and I call it like I see it, and I don't mind stirrin’ it up in order to get people to think and debate aggressively, and to find solutions to the problems that our country is facing. Somebody like me -- is a title and is a campaign too shackling?” she said. “Does that prohibit me from being out there, out of a box, not allowing handlers to shape me and to force my message to be what donors or what contributors or what political pundits want it to be? Does a title take away my freedom to call it like I see it and to affect positive change that we need in this country? That's the biggest contemplation piece in my process.”
But Republicans are not the only party that falls in love with the idea of a candidate. In 2004, Wesley Clark was the dream candidate for many moderate Democrats, especially when liberal former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean began to rack up some early enthusiasm.
Unlike Dean, but like Bill Clinton, Clark hailed from the South – Arkansas. Unlike Clinton, he was a retired general and former NATO commander. And he had the look – square jaw, silver hair. He bombed as an actual declared candidate, but that didn’t stop him from reconsidering again in 2007. “I will tell you this,” he told Amy Goodman on the Democracy Now radio program in the spring of '07. “I think about it every single day.”
And there is the nub of it all. As much as reporters, pundits and kingmakers want to shape and reshape the race, they could not do it without the active and flattered involvement of the potential candidates themselves. This has to be frustrating for those who have actually taken the trouble to declare for the job, travel the country, raise the money and engaged in the televised debates.
But it is the way of the political world now, where a buffet of new options always seems more attractive than the stuff that has already been on the warming tray for a while. Who’s got next?