Has Chris Christie swung the election for Obama?
The 2012 election‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs candidate.
In a withering assault in Tampa, Christie called for clear, decisive leadership. ‚ÄúLeadership delivers. Leadership counts. Leadership matters,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs time to end this era of absentee leadership in the Oval Office and send real leaders to the White House.‚ÄĚ Christie was back on the attack in Richmond, Virginia, last week, making fun of Obama‚Äôs failure to lead. Addressing the president‚Äôs complaint that Washington politics-as-usual had hampered his ability to govern, Christie taunted him, saying, ‚ÄúYou‚Äôve been living inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the last four years. If you don‚Äôt think you can change Washington from inside the White House, let‚Äôs give you the plane ticket back to Chicago you‚Äôve earned.‚ÄĚ
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 ‚Äúlike a man wandering around a dark room, hands up against the wall, clutching for the light switch of leadership and he just can‚Äôt find it‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúblindly walking around the White House looking for a clue.‚ÄĚ Then on Monday came Sandy‚Äôs 90 miles-an-hour gusts hosing millions of gallons of salt water on the sentimental Christie‚Äôs 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‚Äôs leadership skills. On CBS‚Äôs ‚ÄúGood Morning‚ÄĚ he said the president‚Äôs response had been ‚Äúexcellent‚ÄĚ and he ‚Äúcan‚Äôt thank the president enough‚ÄĚ for coming to Jersey‚Äôs aid. That afternoon, Christie told the press, ‚ÄúWe appreciate the president‚Äôs efforts,‚ÄĚ adding, ‚ÄúI appreciate that type of leadership.‚ÄĚ Christie let slip he had spoken to Obama a number of times on the president‚Äôs private line. He plainly liked what he heard. Christie Tweeted, ‚ÄúI want to thank the president personally for all his assistance.‚ÄĚ
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, ‚ÄúI 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.‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs ability to lead. ‚ÄúWhen the president does things that deserve praise, I will give him praise,‚ÄĚ he told Piers Morgan. ‚ÄúAnd when the president does things that deserve scorn, I‚Äôll give him scorn.‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs 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, ‚ÄúMy message to the federal government: No bureaucracy, no red tape. Get resources where they‚Äôre 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.‚ÄĚ
He urged federal officials to think big, recruiting ‚Äúmilitary assets‚ÄĚ and demanding ‚Äúprivate utilities‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs Christie‚Äôs 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‚Äôs helping hand was genuine and human. But Christie is a politician nonetheless.
In the summer he was approached to become Romney‚Äôs vice presidential candidate. The Romney camp dearly wanted to compensate for their wooden candidate‚Äôs awkward personality by strapping on Christie‚Äôs 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‚Äôs response was typically robust. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm tired of dealing with the crazies,‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs¬†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.¬†¬†