Has Chris Christie swung the election for Obama?
The 2012 election’s October Surprise arrived when Hurricane Sandy made landfall and brought the campaign to a halt. The real surprise, however, is how the narrative was so radically altered by the tropical storm’s progress through New Jersey and how Governor Chris Christie so quickly changed his mind about the president. Until the heavens opened, no Mitt Romney surrogate was more scathing and personally disrespectful toward the president than Christie, whose down-to-earth appeal to blue collar voters was considered so important by GOP strategists he was awarded the keynote address at the convention that crowned Romney the party’s candidate.
In a withering assault in Tampa, Christie called for clear, decisive leadership. “Leadership delivers. Leadership counts. Leadership matters,” he said. “It’s time to end this era of absentee leadership in the Oval Office and send real leaders to the White House.” Christie was back on the attack in Richmond, Virginia, last week, making fun of Obama’s failure to lead. Addressing the president’s complaint that Washington politics-as-usual had hampered his ability to govern, Christie taunted him, saying, “You’ve been living inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the last four years. If you don’t think you can change Washington from inside the White House, let’s give you the plane ticket back to Chicago you’ve earned.”
Few other Romney surrogates, and certainly not the mechanical Romney himself, could batter the president with such effect. Christie went on to describe Obama as “like a man wandering around a dark room, hands up against the wall, clutching for the light switch of leadership and he just can’t find it” and “blindly walking around the White House looking for a clue.” Then on Monday came Sandy’s 90 miles-an-hour gusts hosing millions of gallons of salt water on the sentimental Christie’s beloved Jersey Shore, the place where the governor grew up and went to high school.
Thanks to Sandy, Christie the governor engaged with Obama the chief executive and the election turned on a dime. Everywhere you looked on TV Tuesday morning, Christie was extolling the president’s leadership skills. On CBS’s “Good Morning” he said the president’s response had been “excellent” and he “can’t thank the president enough” for coming to Jersey’s aid. That afternoon, Christie told the press, “We appreciate the president’s efforts,” adding, “I appreciate that type of leadership.” Christie let slip he had spoken to Obama a number of times on the president’s private line. He plainly liked what he heard. Christie Tweeted, “I want to thank the president personally for all his assistance.”
Most devastating to the Romney campaign, impotently standing by as Obama took charge of events, Christie appeared on the Fox News breakfast show with its audience of 1.5 million overwhelmingly Republican-voters. Asked whether Romney would be visiting Jersey to see the devastation for himself, Christie snapped, “I have no idea, nor am I the least bit concerned or interested. I have got a job to do here in New Jersey that is much bigger than presidential politics. And I could care less about any of that stuff.” You could almost hear the Romney camp spew out their cups of morning Joe.
On CNN that night Christie explained why he had changed his tune about Obama’s ability to lead. “When the president does things that deserve praise, I will give him praise,” he told Piers Morgan. “And when the president does things that deserve scorn, I’ll give him scorn.” On Wednesday, Christie welcomed Obama to the Jersey Shore and their personal rapport and body language betrayed two men who understand each other and, importantly, respect and like each other.
Inspired no doubt by George W. Bush’s inept handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and his aloof fly-by visit to the scene of mayhem thousands of feet below, Obama has been seen managing the Sandy havoc with his sleeves rolled up. Highlighting the plight of Newark, New Jersey, where up to 90 per cent of households were without power, he said, “My message to the federal government: No bureaucracy, no red tape. Get resources where they’re needed as fast as possible, as hard as possible, and for the duration, because the recovery process obviously in a place like New Jersey is going to take a significant amount of time.”
He urged federal officials to think big, recruiting “military assets” and demanding “private utilities” to act quickly to speed the clean-up. The subliminal message was clear: if members of Congress would only cooperate, he would happily slash government regulations to help the economy recover.
So what’s Christie’s game? From all that is known of him, he is a seat-of-the-pants guy who sees things as he finds them. He is not a sophisticated pol scheming and plotting, looking for every chance to slyly move his piece up the board. His assaults upon Obama were inspired by tribal loyalty; his response to Obama’s helping hand was genuine and human. But Christie is a politician nonetheless.
In the summer he was approached to become Romney’s vice presidential candidate. The Romney camp dearly wanted to compensate for their wooden candidate’s awkward personality by strapping on Christie’s flesh-and-blood approach to voters. Christie was not prepared to take the gamble. It would have meant giving up the Jersey governorship, a job he appears born to do. In brief, Christie said no because he thought Romney would lose.
Yet there is always 2016. If Romney wins, Christie will have to bide his time. But if Obama wins, the GOP will go through an anguished post-mortem where conservative/libertarians will argue Romney was nowhere near conservative enough and the few remaining GOP moderates will claim that Tea Party extremism sank their chances. Christie is a natural retail politician. His only drawback for many in his party is that he has his feet planted too firmly on the ground. When as governor he appointed a Muslim judge, he came in for abuse from conservatives who said he was ushering sharia into America. Christie’s response was typically robust. “I’m tired of dealing with the crazies,” he said. If the GOP wants someone who could give Hillary Clinton (or Joe Biden or Andrew Cuomo) a run for their money next time round, they could do worse than pick Christie.
Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics has just been published in paperback by W. W. Norton. Read extracts here.
PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) is greeted by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie after he arrives at Atlantic City International Airport in New Jersey before surveying Hurricane Sandy damage, October 31, 2012.