Chris Christie is (Still) an Unserious Person
Chris Christie, who was once the governor of a big-ish state and who failed to seize his "moment" to run for President in 2012 (only to fail miserably in 2016), is running for President in 2024. Or is he? The consensus among political junkies seems to be that Christie knows that he is not truly in the running for President, but unlike the other also-ran candidates, he is also not running for Vice President or to serve in a future Trump Administration.
What is Christie doing? The most plausible theory is that he is going through the motions of running for President as a way to stop Donald Trump from having any chance at setting up a (surely corrupt) future Administration. By being in the spotlight and seizing every opportunity to criticize Trump relentlessly -- and accurately -- Christie is doing more damage as a declared candidate than he could do without formally running for President.
If that theory is correct (and I no longer think it is, as I explain below), Christie could have one or both of the following motives: (1) He is shocked both by what Trump has done and what Trump loudly promises to do (that is, to genuinely "weaponize government") and feels honor-bound to do all that he can to stop this menace to American constitutional democracy; (2) He is still smarting from being ritually humiliated by Trump in 2016 and 2017, and he finally sees a way to have his revenge -- served extremely cold.
Because many people (including me) think that Christie's anti-Trump stand is important on its own merits, it might seem unnecessary to choose between the two theories. Even if Christie is being vindictive and small, he is nonetheless serving a larger purpose. Why quibble about what might be making him tick? Even so, there are some interesting lessons in assessing how Christie's public comments do or do not match up with the "nothing left to lose" explanation.
One way to assess whether Christie is really in it for the Trump-bashing (for either reason) is to look at what he is saying about non-Trump issues. If he truly did not care about winning the Republican nomination, he would not pander to his party's base. He would, in particular, not feel compelled to say obviously stupid things that are indefensible but are what Republican primary voters want to hear. He would, in short, not be acting like a soulless political zombie. Is that what we are seeing?
As I have discussed recently (here and here, in different ways), one way to look at life-long Republican politicians in the current environment is to ask whether they have changed their substantive views on policy (social, economic, foreign affairs, and so on) in light of their party's turn toward fascism. Some have genuinely changed on almost all issues and seem now to be liberals (such as, say, Nicolle Wallace on MSNBC, who worked in the George W. Bush Administration and for John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign). Others, like former Republican Party Chair Michael Steele, will hang out with liberals but explicitly and insistently reject the idea of becoming Democrats, presumably for substantive policy reasons -- although it could simply be a matter of a disgusted fan of, say, Ohio State abandoning the team but continuing to hate Michigan.
But because the Republican coalition has become even more mismatched than the notoriously unstable collection of groups that have uncomfortably coexisted in the Democratic Party since WWII, Republicans who have nothing left to lose should be expected to start to defect on the issues to which they were only committed for partisan or electoral reasons. Many analysts have noted, for example, that there is no obvious reason why a Second Amendment extremist would be a Christian conservative, or why a law-and-order conservative would want to defund the tax police (IRS). For that matter, hating "the gays" and hating racial minorities do not necessarily flow from the same well of grievance. After all, although hating "others" is the catchall, one could imagine a man who is uncomfortable with his own sexual confusion lashing out at homosexual men but not automatically hating Black people, immigrants, or even others in the LGBTQ+ rainbow.
Therefore, a person who was holding his nose and going along with the parade of hatred, or who was motivated by those grievances but is not in favor of regressive tax cuts, would then presumably feel liberated by being able to say: "I used to reluctantly support, or at least stay silent, on many issues in order to elect people who would do the one or two things I honestly care about. Now that I'm not running for anything and have abandoned my old party because they have gone completely nuts, however, I do not have to continue to pretend."
Even so, there certainly are some Republicans who sincerely embraced the entire toxic stew. Thus, I recently commented that we have "learned that [Mike] Pence was not faking his extremely conservative views all this time for political advantage (as he sticks with his smarmy piety in support of repressive social and economic policies)." Not that this is surprising, as Pence's many, many faults seemed not to include insincerity. He is as close to a paleo-Puritan as we have seen in US politics in my lifetime, and it was not an act.
What about Christie, and why am I focused on him? Again, Pence seems to think that he can convince Republican primary voters to nominate him. While delusional, at least he is in the party to which he truly belongs. If it were not for the whole lynch mob thing, Pence would be the quintessential Republican on virtually every issue. Being politically liberated would not be likely to change his stated views, because it is difficult to think of an issue on which he was biting his tongue in order to stay in his party's good graces.
Christie is, in two possible ways, the opposite of Pence. He might in fact be one of those people who was only a Republican because of a few key issues -- unlike Pence, who was Mr. Republican on everything -- or he might instead be unlike Pence in not believing in anything. Anything, that is, other than his own ambition and the unswerving belief in his own brilliance.
Recall that Christie's major downfall as governor, a scandal that became known as Bridgegate, was in no way substantive. Moreover, causing a public safety disaster for political purposes was not a one-off but was the logical end point of his entire approach to governing. After all, he spent his first term in a blue-leaning state trying to prove that he was popular, which involved trying to cajole, strong-arm, and if necessary punish New Jersey Democrats who would not endorse him. "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" was merely a way of saying, "Christie needs a political win, and even though Fort Lee does not deserve to be punished -- to say nothing of the thousands of New Yorkers and New Jerseyans who were endangered by the stunt -- the political outcome is all that matters."
In 2014, when his presidential ambitions were highest, Christie vetoed an animal welfare bill that had passed (twice) by strong bipartisan majorities in Trenton. Does Christie want pigs to suffer gratuitously? Does he think that banning pig crates is a bad policy idea on other grounds? There is no evidence to support either of those explanations. He wanted to be President, and the Iowa Republican caucus voters include a lot of people who would have been angry with Christie if he had done the right thing.
Similarly, construction on the desperately needed Hudson Tunnel Project is only now getting started, thanks to President Biden and the Democrats (and a few Senate Republicans) passing the infrastructure bill last year. Why is that relevant here? As a New York Times article notes:
If this plan sounds familiar that is because transportation planners have been here before. In 2010, work had already begun to move the same stretch of roadway to provide access to the western end of a different tunnel to New York. But that project, which was known as ARC, for Access to the Region’s Core, was abruptly canceled by Chris Christie, who was then New Jersey’s governor.
... Had the project continued on schedule, the new tunnel would already have been in use for a few years.
Although The Times notes dutifully that Christie "said at the time that he feared that his state would be saddled with huge cost overruns," there was no reason to think that he was being sincere. Indeed, it was obvious to political observers at the time that his "principled" reasons for opposing the tunnel were -- in addition to being based on simple lies -- plainly pretexutal: "[T]he governor directed money from the tunnel to fill the state’s transportation trust fund, allowing him to keep a campaign promise not to raise the gasoline tax."
In other words, Christie was eyeing presidential politics, and being "against govenrment spending" and anti-tax was more important than serving the crying needs of his state's citizens -- both Republicans and Democrats.
To put it differently, even though Christie has been in the public eye for well over a decade, it is difficult to say what in fact he cares about or even believes. What we know is that he can become very belligerent when dealing with people who stand in his way or even merely disagree with him (berating public schoolteachers being one of his keep-it-classy moves), but honestly, what is Chris Christie about other than Chris Christie? He might be the opposite of Pence in that Pence truly believes in things (which is tragic for the rest of us), but Christie simply does whatever he can think of to be powerful.
And to use an even more obvious example, Christie was absolutely instrumental in early 2016 in clearing the way for Trump to become the Republicans' nominee. Not only did Christie kneecap poor Marco Rubio (who of course was in over his head in any event), but he endorsed Trump when almost no one else would. But like the other early Trump-endorser Jeff Sessions, Christie was soon unceremoniously tossed aside.
So although Christie is now earning respect for something that is truly respectable, there is otherwise no there there. As I pointed out last week, when Christie drops the anti-Trump script, he has nothing to say -- not anything that makes even minimal sense, in any case. On MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Christie offered this puzzler: "If Biden wins, we’ll have a packed Supreme Court and the end of the filibuster. ... Democrats are doing what they’re doing because they think Trump is the most beatable candidate." As I noted, Assertion A is incoherent, while Assertion B in fact supports Trump's claim that "the justice system is being used against me by my political opponents."
Yesterday, Christie appeared on "Morning Joe," where he again was treated with respect because of his attacks on Trump's fascist views. But when the subject of abortion came up, Christie tried to go with the "let the states decide" move (even though there is no reason to believe that Christie is in fact a states' rights kind of dude), which included repeating the silly argument that "Roe was wrong, there's nothing in the Constitution that talks about this issue [abortion]," which is merely warmed-over version of the meaningless observation that the word "privacy" does not appear in the Constitution. (As Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously replied, neither does the word "freedom.")
Christie then said that "in my state of New Jersey, it's abortion up to nine months," which provoked an irritated response from the usually reserved co-host Mika Brzezinski, who pointed out that that is utter nonsense: "There's not a doctor that would do it. ... You can come back and bring me evidence of the women in New Jersey having abortions in the ninth month. It's not happening, Chris. Come on."
But once he got rolling, Christie revealed just how little he cares about making sense: "So I want to put this in the hands of the people of this country and out of the hands of the politicians. Let them decide in each state." But of course in the states, it is generally politicians who are making these decisions, with the occasional situation in which public referenda intervene (although Ohio's state-level politicians tried to stop that). More to the point, Christie said that he would support a 50-state ban if there were sixty votes in the Senate and if there was a genuine consensus in this country, whatever that might mean. The point is that, in the space of about a minute, he could not even decide whether abortion law should be decided by the people, the politicians, the states, or the federal government.
My point is not, however, merely that Chris Christie is attempting to be slick and evasive about a hot-button issue. That is what one expects ambitious politicians to do, especially when they are pandering to a voter base with whom they have only a few things in common. And what Christie is doing here is to stake out a position on abortion that is designed to obfuscate and push false talking points, which means that he is acting like a guy who is trying to win. Why would the guy who "is only in this to stop Donald Trump" bother with that nonsense? If the idea is to "take the Republican Party back to its roots," then maybe Christie could be a genuine libertarian and become a pro-choice conservative (or for that matter a pro-conservation conservative), which used to be common among Republicans.
Instead, Christie is acting like a politician in the worst sense. Because he clearly cannot bring himself to say that "abortion is murder," but he for some reason wants to say that abortion can be banned, he casts about and comes up with a word salad, invoking buzzwords like "the politicians" and "consensus." He has never been a serious person in the sense of having identifiable policy views (much less well crafted defenses of them), and he is still unserious. What is truly confusing is why he is still bothering to be slippery. In the end, maybe it is simply muscle memory.