Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Did Christie crush his presidential hopes?

Over on the homepage today, I take up the big question of whether Chris Christie's effusive praise for Barack Obama one week before the election will haunt his presidential ambitions.

Yet to understand the past month’s impact on Christie, it’s imperative to distinguish between his local and national ambitions.

Christie is up for reelection next year in New Jersey — a deeply Democratic state that last voted for a Republican president over two decades ago. It’s not clear if Christie will run again, but to win, he’ll once again need sizable support from both independents and Democrats, and his praise of Obama is likely to help.

But Christie also has national ambitions and, like it or not, the 2016 presidential primary has already begun — and it’s a very different, much more conservative set of judges watching the governor nationally, as opposed to locally.

Ben Domenech, editor of The Transom newsletter and research fellow at the conservative Heartland Institute, thinks some of the Christie derision has been unfair but nevertheless underscores the tension between Christie’s competing aspirations. “His reaction to the hurricane may have saved his governorship but doomed his national hopes,” Domenech noted.

Those national hopes are further dimmed by the fact that, as Christie moves to the middle, probable 2016 opponents will be moving further to the right, which Domenech pegs as an ideological contrast that could hurt the governor.

One deeply plugged-in GOP consultant who asked not to be identified in order to speak candidly can easily anticipate a 2016 primary where Christie’s bear-hug with Obama is cloaked in the menacing robe of a black-and-white TV spot.

“I’m sure some of his consultants will freak out about how the bear-hug will be leveled against him,” the consultant notes, “but there are a lot of reasons why Christie would face long odds in running for president; if he does, the bear-hug won’t be one of the top ones.”

It’s true that Christie would face some conservative angst over moderate portions of his record, but the hug resonates on a more emotional level, because the entire nation — including nearly every GOP primary voter — was watching, and because it came just a week before an election Republicans were confident they could win.

But Christie also has his defenders — those who applaud his tour with Obama as a courageous move that will ultimately be validated.

Mark McKinnon, a former Bush strategist whose disgust with partisan politics led him to form No Labels — a nonpartisan grassroots group — thinks problem-solving, not partisanship, moves voters.

“Christie will be rewarded, in the long run, for putting the needs of his people before the ambitions of his party,” McKinnon says.

And even while warning that some consultants will “freak out” because of Christie’s “bear-hug and larger, non-physical embrace of Obama,” the GOP consultant referenced earlier guesses that ultimately, Christie’s performance will help him.

“Christie has a job to do, and the job is to govern — not be a Republican hatchet-swinger. Governing would not have been aided by doing what the conservative base wanted him to. Ultimately, if New Jersey recovers from Sandy well, Christie will be in a good position in his own state.”

Meanwhile, Brad Phillips — president of Phillips Media Relations and founder of the Mr. Media Training Guy blog — can foresee political opponents exploiting the bear-hug in a national campaign, but thinks both the context (the hurricane) and Christie’s communication skills can vindicate him.

Ultimately, it’s easy to make the case that Christie’s performance will be forgiven, but it’s also easy to make the case that his effusive praise for Obama will be remembered. Those are two easy things to imagine, but they make for one very difficult problem.