The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, October 3, 2011

He Who Hesitates Stays Safe

Some Recent Examples Demonstrate Why Christie Might Not Reconsider

GOP politicos are abuzz that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is reconsidering whether to throw his hat into the ring as a Republican Presidential candidate. Christie repeatedly demurred earlier this year to exhortations that he run, citing his unreadiness to be President as well as work left undone in New Jersey.

If the rumors are true, it is easy to understand why Christie might find the present moment tempting. A summer of particularly bad economic data and record low approval numbers has left President Obama looking highly vulnerable. Moreover, conservative voters continue to express dissatisfaction with the current crop of declared Republican candidates. Many GOP political analysts and big-money donors are agog over Christie as a shiny avatar with the intelligence and political shrewdness of a Mitt Romney combined with the tough-talking populism of a Tea Partier.

Republican New Jersey Governor,
Chris Christie, speaking at the
Reagan Presidential Library

Elected Governor in 2009, Christie has built a sterling political reputation over the past couple of years. His popularity within New Jersey remains high. A Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll released in September shows him with fifty-four percent approval. Although unpopular when Christie first proposed it, voters in his state have come to respect Christie’s tough measures to deal with a $2.2 billion budget deficit in 2010. Indeed, the time seems so ripe for him to run for President that some find themselves flabbergasted and dismayed by Christie’s reticence.

Christie recently traveled to California, where he gave a major address at the Ronald Reagan Library. In it, he bashed Obama for what he called a “lack of leadership,” while touting his own accomplishments in New Jersey. Yet it was a moment during a question and answer session following the speech that caught all the media sound bites.

“I really implore you,” begged a woman in the audience, “as a citizen of this country to reconsider . . . Do it. Do it for my daughter. Do it for our grandchildren. Do it for our sons. Please, sir, we need you. Your country needs you to run for President.”

In the presence of so much positive reinforcement and desperate pleading, it is surely hard for Christie to avoid the lure of his own Presidential ambitions. I will not be surprised if he shortly announces his candidacy. At the same time, I also will not be surprised if he holds fast and refuses. Some recent political examples provide him an illustrative warning of how quickly the sweet taste currently in his mouth could turn sour.

Example one – Barack Obama. Four years ago, Obama, like Christie, was two years into his term in his first office with national exposure. He was a rapidly rising star within his Party. He was highly popular, with many Democratic voters fantasizing over him running. The Republican opposition was unpopular and viewed as ineffective. The Democrats had an early frontrunner in Hillary Clinton but nobody the base was truly excited about.

Party leaders and insiders convinced him that now was the time to make his move. Many shrewd advisors felt following conventional wisdom and waiting to gain experience and gravitas would work against Obama’s chances – he was better off running at an opportune moment than as a more seasoned politician. He won in the end but constantly fighting against that conventional wisdom such that, even today, his critics insist two and a half years experience actually being President still leaves him too inexperienced to be President.

Example two – Sarah Palin. Three years ago, she was a rapidly rising GOP star, recently elected to her first office with national exposure, when John McCain tapped her as his Vice-Presidential running mate. She gave a speech at the Republican Convention that electrified the hard-right base. Political observers were left wondering if McCain had truly pulled off a game-changing move.

Several interviews and further media scrutiny resulted in consternation by the Republican establishment and downright fear and loathing among moderates and Independents. Rather than augmenting and shoring up McCain’s shaking image with hard-core conservatives, she actually detracted from his reputation among them. She opened herself to attacks on her intelligence/basic competence and some genuinely vile attacks against her family. By the time of her defeat in the 2008 election, she had become a comic caricature of the promise she once represented.

However, perhaps the most germane example to give Christie’s current ambitions pause is Rick Perry. Only about a month ago, he vaulted over Mitt Romney in Republican polling immediately after entering the race. He appeared to be a true shining Southern star and a bona fide economic and social conservative. He was charismatic and his state had amassed a reputation for creating jobs rather than the healthcare reform system from which sprang Obamacare.

A couple of disastrous debate performances in Iowa and Florida, in which his opponents used his own published words to flay him, left Perry looking distinctly less shiny. He lost his frontrunner status almost before he could enjoy it. Voters looked askance on his policies as too liberal on illegal immigration and too draconian on Social Security reform. He suffered the twin humiliations of losing to Herman Cain in a Florida straw poll and hearing his wife defending him to vouchsafe he was “going to get better.”

There are other, practical concerns working against Christie. Recent announced intentions by Florida and other states to move up their primaries and caucuses only shortens a campaign season to which he would be a latecomer. Then there is scrutiny by the press and possible derision by popular culture. Christie likes to joke self-deprecatingly about being overweight. He may soon find many laughing at him and not with him on this topic.

“The new normal” in this country may apply to more than cautious investment on the part of banks and business. Politicians need only look around to see risk-taking with almost zero chance of growth. Politicians whose shine voters initially thought emanated from an internal glow have turned out to possess mere glare when placed in the spotlight. Christie has a good thing going for himself in New Jersey and throwing it away for a shot at the Presidency may not strike him as wisdom for good reason.

Rather than the adage “He who hesitates is lost,” the new normal promotes the philosophy, “He who hesitates stays safe.” Alternatively, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, “Better to remain in Trenton and be presumed an overweight savant with certainty than take your show on the road and raise doubt you are nothing but a fat fool.”

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