Packaging a President: Christie’s Rollout Models Clinton, Bush, and Obama

New Jersey’s governor vows bipartisanship, big fixes, courage, and authenticity. Sound familiar?

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks at his election night event after winning a second term at the Asbury Park Convention Hall on November 05, 2013 in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
National Journal
Ron Fournier
Nov. 11, 2013, 1:03 a.m.

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.

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