Christie Our Savior

Why this week’s Republican messiah is no better than last week’s.

Will Chris Christie end up running for president?

The man who can save the Republican Party “stands in opposition to inside-the-Beltway Washington elites,” says Rush Limbaugh. The savior’s “style is very engaging,”according to Stanley Kurtz. “At times, he seems to act out virtually every word he speaks with his body.” A magazine in the savior’s home state calls him “the kind of politician who would rather be feared than loved—or respected.”

Hang on, my mistake. I set out to write about Chris Christie, the new Republican messiah, but in my haste I accidentally started quoting punditry about Rick Perry, the old Republican messiah. (Many thanks to Conor Friedersdorf for rounding up so many articles from the musty genre of Perry-worship.) No, no: Christie is completely different! If he gets in, it’ll be like the Beatles disembarking from a plane into a crowd of frenzied schoolgirls. Faced with his straight talk, the other Republican candidates may just up and quit and see if Fox News has any open slots for contributors.

Christie’s address on “American exceptionalism” at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Tuesday only adds to the buzz. Christie’s circle has tamped down on it, confirming for the umpteenth time that he does not plan to run for president. You can find this news in a Politico article that shares online space with a “2012 Presidential Election Calendar.” Still on the calendar: “Chris Christie Speaking at an Ann Wagner for Congress Finance Event” and “Chris Christie Speaking at a New Jersey Republican Party Finance Event.”

Here’s another item to add to the calendar, every day for the foreseeable future: Chris Christie Unable To Stop Republicans From Floating Him as Dream Candidate. Eleven months from now, he will be answering questions about Republican National Convention delegates who want to dump their candidate and install him. There is no stopping Bill Kristol from running at you with a crown and an inspirational poem, as Paul Ryan has learned.

As we endure this, remember two things. One: The Republican field is offering most of what Christie offers, even if a bored press corps has run out of ways to cover it. Two: Christie’s reputation as a speaker, once underrated, is now overrated.

To be fair to the pundits, a lot of the overrating has come from Christie himself. His constant aw-shucks-ing of the presidential hype has taken on a too-satisfied tone. “I think what the country is thirsting for,” he said this weekend, “more than anything else right now, is someone of stature and credibility to tell them that and say, ‘Here’s where I want us to go to deal with this crisis.’ The fact that nobody yet who’s running for president, in my view, has done that effectively is why you continue to hear people ask [Indiana Gov. Mitch] Daniels if he’ll reconsider and ask me if I’ll reconsider.”

But the current Republican candidates have been talking about this stuff. It’s hard to say if they’ve been “effective,” what with Christie’s YouTube oeuvre to compare themselves to, but they’ve been doing it. Perry has stumbled over his words (which is why there’s a Christie boomlet, again), but Perry has written a federalist manifesto in which he recommends decentralizing Social Security and shrinking Medicare. “I would suggest that any Republican who is not going to work toward finding a solution to the budgetary problems that we have in this country ought to just go home,” he’s said. Mitt Romney has endorsed the Paul Ryan budget, as has Jon Huntsman. Both of them have had to walk a gauntlet of stupid ideological pledges, which nonetheless means they’ve had to make more tough calls about national issues than the dream candidate has.

On policy and our national crises, the current contenders are no more airy than Christie himself. On immigration, he’s arguably to the left of Perry—he even calls illegal immigration an “administrative manner,” not a “crime.” His rep as an unparalleled teller of truths grows out of a February 2011 speech he gave at the American Enterprise Institute.

“Here is the truth that no one is talking about,” said Christie then, referring to a truth some people were already talking about. “You’re going to have to raise the retirement age for Social Security. Oh, I just said it and I’m still standing here! I did not vaporize into the carpeting and I said it! We have to reform Medicare because it costs too much and it is going to bankrupt us. Once again lightning did not come through the windows and strike me dead. And we have to fix Medicaid because it’s not only bankrupting the federal government, it’s bankrupting every state government. There you go.”

Christie’s “vaporize into the carpeting” line was a winner; Daniels quoted it Monday in a speech in the very same room at the very same think tank. Yet he was saying, without specifics, what everyone in Washington says, sometimes with more specifics.

As a noncandidate, Christie has stuck to talking about a few issues that the punditocracy and voters can’t get enough of: greedy public-sector unions, school reform, and why Washington doesn’t work. Is he better at it than other Republicans? Better than most, sure, but he gets to pick his forums—speeches, interviews, town halls. When he had to debate opponents in 2009, he was poorly reviewed for, of all things, a deficit of straight talk. The 2012 season has been one long repetition of a three-act play:

1. Build up dark-horse candidate who offers something that no one else does.
2. Pile on the candidate for flubbing something at a key moment.
3. Build up dark-horse candidate who offers something that no one else does.

We can understand if Christie wants to just skip it—right after using his national profile for some speeches and fundraisers. We can choose not to overinterpret tea leaves like the affection David Koch has for Christie. (Is there a Republican presidential nominee who won’t get his support?) We can read the polls that show Republicans are actually getting more and more comfortable with their choices. And maybe we can stop pretending that a messy ideological primary is something that needs to be “fixed” by a perfect candidate.

My former colleague Tim Noah used to have a feature called the “Obama Messiah Watch,” a star search for the mooniest, most worshipful quotes about the senator who became president. As long as Christie remains the Republican savior, I will collect quotes from admirers who imbue the governor with immense powers, more than any other human candidate can offer. Today it’s former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, from a Sept. 26 interview with Robert Costa of the National Review.

“He is the best speaker I may have ever heard in politics. In an era when most people suspect that politicians read polls and then tell you what they think, people don’t believe he’s that kind of a fellow. He tells you what he thinks, period. We like that around here.”

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