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Chris Christie and the political awareness that the Republicans need

Ben Plummer 14/11/12

In the fallout from Election Day, you will have read all sorts of reports and opinions that declare the death of the Republican Party should it not oversee a radical policy overhaul in the immediate future. Its always a difficult job to filter out the one inevitably fantastical, panicked speculation after a heavy (and yes it was heavy, particularly after Florida was called for Obama) election defeat from the more considered opinions. I don't think that anyone really believes that in a modern day 2 party system with two such established members that one can just die a death because it loses two elections. But few foresaw the resounding nature with which Mitt Romney was defeated, despite, I would argue, his only positive effect on the race coming after the first debate. The one name that did, it would seem, would be that of Chris Christie. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the New Jersey governor went to great lengths to praise the President on his handling of the disaster. The word "outstanding" was mentioned more than once. "He and I have formed a great partnership". While on Fox News, he was asked to comment on a potential visit to his state by Mitt Romney. "I don't know and quite frankly I couldn't care less. If you think I give a damn about presidential politics at a time like this then you don't know me". Ouch. I'll start my argument by saying that the integrity of Gov. Christie is something that I don't and wouldn't doubt. He wears his heart on his sleeve, is fiercely proud of his state, and is genuinely dedicated to their wellbeing. In fact, Ill put it out there that he is one of the few republicans I could see myself supporting. However, to suggest that his statements were made without consideration of the precarious position his party finds itself in would be ridiculous. It is near impossible for a party member holding office to support the opposition so close to an election, despite the gravity of the situation, without having even a vague agenda. But this argument wouldn't hold water by itself. There is no way you could hold Mr Christie or indeed anyone to account on this, because politics is an unempirical art as opposed to a statistical science.

But the evidence is in where it left him in the eyes of the electorate. Consider that Mr Christie was strongly tipped for a presidential run himself before he announced his support for Mitt Romney. He made his decision against it while the race was young. It is probably giving him too much credit to say that he estimated the political winds of the country and predicted the difficulties that any Republican would have had in a party with its core heavily skewed to the right and against the political winds of the country. But it bears thinking about. In his support for Romney, he threw his weight behind the candidate that was from the beginning out ahead in the race by himself during primary season, and the only one who was ever going to win despite the party's brief flirtations with almost everyone else who ran. This is important, because it brings Christie's political judgement into light. Yes, Romney was the only half-sensible candidate that the GOP could muster, but that doesn't make his early endorsement any less significant. He'd picked the winner before he was the winner. A pattern begins to emerge. Once Sandy hit, and the final days of the race revealed that Romney was all but doomed to defeat, an opportunity arose. Again, to say that Mr Christies concern wasn't genuine and that his passion was false would be to do the man a great disservice, and discount all preceding evidence. There is a considerable fire in his considerable belly, and he always projects it honestly, if not tactfully. And to single him out in seizing the tragic moment would be incredibly unfair (Sandy was the closest that we got to an October surprise, and was significant in reinforcing the President's presidential image in the final few days of the campaign). However, his praise of the President came curiously close to support. The story of the race had, by that time, been told. History was written, and barring a momentous shift in the political landscape of the country, the President would be re-elected. And so it came to be. Now, let's analyse what this achieved for Gov. Christie when evaluating his GOP prospects for 2016.

1. It was token bipartisanship

Whether substantial or superficial (again, I would place the former above the latter), it will be remembered as a willingness to reach out to the other side when it was most needed. This is particularly important given the party's post-2010 role as stubborn opponents, while offering little else by way of vision. Who would you trust to make a deal as the country teeters on the edge of the fiscal cliff, Christie or Messrs McConnell and Boehner?

2. It built a bridge with a President he had thus far been a fierce opponent of This was the case as little as a week prior to his very public appearances with Obama. Having declared The president is clawing at the wall in the dark looking for the leadership switch, but he just cant find it, there was a pretty big bridge to build. This becomes even more relevant if you consider the fact that Obama was likely to win. In the next four years he will have the ear of the President with a renewed mandate to govern, which gives him an edge over fellow republicans with designs on the Whitehouse, the advantage when looking to secure deals in the interests of his state, and possibly the opportunity to familiarise himself with Washington in advance. 3. He appeared Presidential By putting himself on equal footing with Obama as an executive, he projected lots of images that will live long in the memory Bro-shaking with Obama being my favourite. This is something that others potentially seeking the nomination in four years time, such as Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal, are again unlikely to ever have the opportunity to do, not in the next four years anyway, especially considering the national exposure he achieved in the process.

His political savvy should be in no doubt. He has shown before that there is a shrewd operator beneath the bluster, and given where he left in the wake of the disaster, especially in the eyes of the electorate, it is hard to come to any other conclusion than he is putting his talents to good use. Once evaluated, the amount Christie gained from the whole situation makes it difficult to conclude that this was anything other than a political masterstroke.

Don't believe what you hear; there will be a Republican candidate in 2016, and he (or she? Don't hold your breath) will in all likelihood be younger, significantly more moderate, and have a much softer immigration policy, assuming that they don't continue to ignore Latinos as an increasingly important part of the voting public. So when Chris Christie says that he doesn't give a damn about presidential politics, he isn't lying. But like any good politician, he is masterfully using the truth to his convenience. Amid all the premature predictions of the GOPs expiration, it must be a relief that there are still those within the party who will break rank in the name of electability, in the hope that others will follow suit. It is a big step forward as the party tries to wrangle away from the far right ideology that has dogged it for the last 2 election cycles. Id hazard that we have a frontrunner already.