7 Ways Clinton and Christie Could Bungle 2016

She’s the status quo, he’s a bully, and a dark horse could emerge like Obama did for 2008.

National Journal
Nov. 6, 2013, 4:20 a.m.

It’s easy to spin a post­mortem ana­lys­is of Tues­day’s elec­tions as a pre­curs­or to a 2016 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign pit­ting Re­pub­lic­an Chris Christie against Demo­crat Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton. Christie won reelec­tion as gov­ernor of New Jer­sey in a land­slide, at­tract­ing minor­ity and wo­men voters in num­bers un­reach­able for most Re­pub­lic­ans. Clin­ton ally Terry McAul­iffe won the Vir­gin­ia gubernat­ori­al elec­tion with a staff stocked from her or­bit.

There is even data: Exit polls show Clin­ton nar­rowly beat­ing Christie in New Jer­sey

It’s hard to res­ist the ap­peal of con­ven­tion­al wis­dom — but in this case (ac­tu­ally, in most cases) you should. Here are sev­en reas­ons to re­main open to any­thing oth­er than a Clin­ton-Christie con­test.

Clin­ton is the status quo. Yes, she would be the first fe­male pres­id­ent. And, since her days in Arkan­sas, the former first lady and sec­ret­ary of State has been a for­ward-thinker on is­sues that mat­ter to people buf­feted by the cur­rents of so­cial and eco­nom­ic change. But the Clin­ton fam­ily is a polit­ic­al in­sti­tu­tion at a time when voters are look­ing to dis­rupt and re­build in­sti­tu­tions. A gen­er­a­tion after she helped her hus­band win the pres­id­ency as an “agent of change,” re­claim­ing that mantle will be tricky.

Christie is a Re­pub­lic­an. That means he can’t be pres­id­ent without win­ning the GOP nom­in­a­tion, which re­quires fealty to a no-com­prom­ise brand of con­ser­vat­ism that mod­er­ate voters ab­hor. As Jonath­an Chait wrote, Christie sup­ports gun con­trol and im­mig­ra­tion re­form, and agrees with the over­whelm­ing weight of sci­entif­ic evid­ence on cli­mate change. The tea party won’t like him. If he pulls a John Mc­Cain and lurches right for the nom­in­a­tion (as the Ari­zona sen­at­or did in 2008), Christie likely would suf­fer a sim­il­ar fate.

Clin­ton is un­tested. It seems odd to write those words about a wo­man I watched over­come sex­ism and skep­ti­cism in Arkan­sas and scan­dal in Wash­ing­ton to be­come a U.S. sen­at­or and sec­ret­ary of State. But it’s a fact that Clin­ton has run just one ser­i­ously con­tested cam­paign, the 2008 Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion fight against Barack Obama. It was hers to lose, and she lost it. (She won her Sen­ate seat in a Demo­crat­ic state, New York, and against a weak GOP foe, Rick Lazio.)

Christie has skel­et­ons in his closet. Mark Halper­in and John Heile­mann re­port in their book Double Down that Mitt Rom­ney passed over Christie for the 2012 vice pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion after a back­ground check raised red flags. Among them: a 2010 Justice De­part­ment in­spect­or gen­er­al’s in­vest­ig­a­tion of Christie’s spend­ing prac­tices in his job be­fore he was gov­ernor, his ac­tions as a lob­by­ist, and his de­cisions to steer gov­ern­ment con­tract­ors to polit­ic­al al­lies.

Clin­ton is out of prac­tice.  Her last polit­ic­al cam­paign was five years ago. Her last vic­tory was sev­en years ago. The ques­tion is wheth­er Clin­ton’s re­tail cam­paign skills have im­proved or de­clined with time. For 25 years now, I have marveled at the dis­tance between her pub­lic ca­ri­ca­ture (cold, angry, and ma­nip­u­lat­ive) and her private per­sona (warm, funny, and en­ga­ging — more so even than her fam­ously charm­ing hus­band). It’s pos­sible that the 2008 de­feat as well as her time out of the arena taught Clin­ton to break out of her hard shell.

Christie is a bully. In an era of de­cep­tion, Christie’s blunt style is an enorm­ous as­set. But it could also be a li­ab­il­ity if voters start in­ter­pret­ing his pas­sion as lack of tol­er­ance, dis­cip­line, and sta­bil­ity. How well will he wear on voters?

Re­mem­ber 2005. The elec­tion is three years away. It might as well be three dec­ades away giv­en the speed of mod­ern cul­ture. In 2005, three years be­fore the Obama-Mc­Cain gen­er­al elec­tion, USA Today pub­lished the res­ult of a poll show­ing New York May­or Rudy Gi­uliani as the front-run­ner for the 2008 GOP nom­in­a­tion.

Among Demo­crats, Clin­ton lapped the pack with 40 per­cent sup­port. She led both Sens. John Kerry and John Ed­wards, the 2004 tick­et. Obama was not even men­tioned. That raises the ques­tion: Who is the 2016 dark horse?

COR­REC­TION: The ori­gin­al story in­cor­rectly stated how long it had been since Clin­ton’s last elec­tion vic­tory. The year was 2006.

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