In an era of wrenching economic and social change, voters bet their hopes on a little-tested leader who a) echoed their disillusionment, b) pledged to end polarization, c) defied his party's extremists, d) embraced the task of tackling big problems, and e) seemed authentic.
And so it happened in 1992, 2000, and 2008 that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama became president. Judging by his rhetoric after a landslide reelection Tuesday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie hopes to package himself as the "Perfect Candidate for Troubled Times," version 4.0.
Voters crave—and the nation needs—a transformational president to lead America into the post-industrial era, just as Theodore Roosevelt reset U.S. political and social institutions for the post-agricultural era. But after three less-than-promised presidencies, voters may not be inclined to buy the hype.
And yet, it begins. Interviewed on four Sunday news shows, Christie pushed all the familiar buttons.
"There are obvious problems that need to be fixed, and the people in Washington, both parties, are not fixing these problems, nor is the president." Christe's pox-on-both-houses broadsides are sure to anger partisans while resonating with moderate voters who are sick of the status quo. Moderates also elect presidents. As sitting governors, Bush and Clinton spoke as outsiders against "politics as usual" in Washington. In 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama vowed to "change the culture of Washington," and voters had the audacity to hope he could.
"On governing, it's about doing things, accomplishing things, reaching across the aisle and crafting accomplishments." Clinton and Bush came to Washington with records of bipartisanship accomplishment. Through fault of their own and of their enemies, both presidents left the office more polarized than they found it. Part of the problem is something Christie would never admit: It's easier to be bipartisan on the state level, where structural issues that gridlock Washington—redistricting, special-interest money, a lack of familiarity among leaders etc.—don't exist or are less of a problem. Clinton, a Democrat, worked with a largely Democratic state Legislature in Arkansas. As governor of Texas, Bush had little constitutional authority; the Republican Bush would have accomplished little without the help of the powerful lieutenant governor, a Democrat. Obama had barely made a mark in the Illinois Legislature or the U.S. Senate when he famously denounced polarization in his 2004 Democratic National Convention address for nominee John Kerry. "We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States," Obama said. "We coach Little League in the Blue States, and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the Red States." As president, Obama is more of a captive of polarization in Washington than an enemy of it.
"We need to not pander on these issues. We need to have adults in the room who make decisions based upon controlling violence in our society." Christie defending his support of limited gun control, anathema to Second Amendment purists who dominate the GOP nomination process, reminds me of a campaign trip in 1999 when I asked the Texas governor about efforts by Republicans in Washington to delay payments to the working poor to save money in the 2000 budget. "I don't think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor," Bush replied. The remark angered GOP lawmakers and worried conservative activists, but it helped brand the Texan as a "compassionate conservative." As a candidate in 1992, Clinton criticized a black rapper, and as president, enacted welfare reform, both signals to white middle-class voters that he would not be anchored to liberal ideology. Obama has offered to cut entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, a nod to the middle that enrages liberals.
"What our election was about was a record that showed that we can get the job done: 143,000 new private-sector jobs, reformed pension and benefits, slowed the growth of property taxes, cut business taxes $2.3 billion. You know, reform teacher tenure." Christie wants voters to know he tackled important and complicated issues in New Jersey, because he surely has outsized aspirations for the nation. Clinton ambitiously tried to overhaul the nation's health care system, but failed. Obama succeeded. Bush promised in 2000 to change the way students and schools are measured, and did so as president, with the help of Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy. Bush later set his sights on war in Iraq and Social Security reform, both flawed policies.
"I tell folks in New Jersey the hard truths they need to hear." Christie blasted Obama for deceiving the public about health insurance reform as a way to underscore his reputation for candor. This is the age of authenticity: There is so little of it in popular culture today that product brands stand to gain by just being real. Domino's Pizza, for example, remade its pizza recipe after acknowledging in commercials that the old one tasted horrible. In business, that's called a "credibility investment." Clinton invested in his credibility from the moment he became a candidate in 1992, promising Americans that he would work tirelessly to put them back to work. When he got caught lying about an extramarital affair in 1998, his political authenticity saved him from ruin over his personal credibility. Two years later, Bush packaged himself as the antidote to the disgust people felt about Clinton's personal behavior, promising at every campaign stop "to restore honor and dignity to the White House."
I wrote last week that there are many hurdles between Christie and the GOP nomination. Staunch conservatives will try to stop him, his shadowy background may not stand the glare of a national campaign, and his blunt style may not wear well on voters. In many ways, the New Jersey governor is the closest thing we've got to Clinton, Bush and Obama—a packaged-for-the-times candidate, Version 4.0, glitches included.