The Wall Street Journal

  • OCTOBER 6, 2011

Something purely political scared off New Jersey’s governor.


  • It was always easy to understand the case for Chris Christie. In an age of inescapable media, politics is the art of communication. Rick Perry tripped over his tongue in one debate, and the gods of polling cast him out. Tim Pawlenty mastered the details of national policy but missed the memo that modern politics is dancing with the stars.

What Chris Christie’s deeply disappointed promoters recognized is that the freshman governor is a great communicator, a rare gift. A short list of great political communicators would include New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, Bill Clinton and Chris Christie—all super salesmen of retail politics.

The La Guardias, Clintons and Christies are merely the genius product of how people negotiate life where they grew up—La Guardia’s New York streets, Clinton’s slick Southern charm. It’s hard to overstate how New Jersey Chris Christie is. People compare Chris Christie to James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. But it’s not Tony Soprano. It’s just James Gandolfini, a Jersey guy. Both emit a “Don’t b.s. me,” in-your-face bluntness learned living in a state filled with no-nonsense Italians and Irish. (Mr. Christie is both.)

Gov. Christie said repeatedly this year he didn’t think he was ready to run for the presidential roses. No matter. They told him this is an historically important presidential election in which the American people need to decide whether to go where Barack Obama’s wants to take them or choose the alternative that’s been best articulated by Rep. Paul Ryan. True. But those banking on a Christie run may have seen only a glass half-full.

Gov. Christie has come across the Hudson River a number of times to talk to the Journal’s editorial-page writers. We’ve heard a lot of his high-velocity rhetoric. Often overlooked when he’s performing this verbal magic is that about 80% of what Gov. Christie says is drab detail about New Jersey’s budget, pension crisis, schools situation, property taxes and the rest. He flat-out knows New Jersey.

The admired Christie persona isn’t just charisma, charm and smarts, attributes that adhere to many political rookies. Unlike rookies, almost all of the devastating punchlines Mr. Christie delivers are wrapped inside a substantive, detailed argument.


Associated PressThe latest dropout from GOP presidential politics.

What Gov. Christie gives his audiences is the performance of a gifted federal attorney, which he was in New Jersey for six years. Prosecutors master facts and fashion them into a case for their side. No one in politics today matches facts to plain speaking better than Chris Christie. But with this stillborn presidential draft, Mr. Christie was being asked to perform without half his skill set, his mastery of facts.

When Mr. Christie said he wasn’t ready, he didn’t mean he wasn’t ready to be president. He meant he wasn’t ready to argue the case in front of a national jury. If Chris Christie knew as much as Paul Ryan does about entitlements, ObamaCare, the details of the U.S. budget and federal tax policy, he’d have rolled over the incumbent like a (insert your heavyweight metaphor here).

But Mr. Christie didn’t know enough about any of these national subjects, and in his first public events and debates it would have shown, as it has for the race’s other fully employed governor, Rick Perry. And when he didn’t perform the impossible miracle of downloading Paul Ryan’s brain for next week’s debate, the blogosphere and the conservative base would have whined disappointment. That in turn would have fed into a media narrative of another failed Republican high-flyer. The polls would mark him down, and the insatiable GOP beast would have gone back to prowling the streets for their next expendable leader.

This is the half-wit way we pick presidents now. All the serious people are saying, No thanks. The Pick-Seven presidential selection system isn’t working.

For all this, there were several good arguments against Mr. Christie’s no-go decision.

The first came from the lady who shouted at the Reagan Library, “Your country needs you.” In this field, there was a chance that enough Republican voters would have agreed, securing the nomination for Gov. Christie because the party believed he was the One. Organizational hurdles aside, in the months until next August’s conventions, the former prosecutor could have mastered the case against Barack Obama. An informed Chris Christie is a formidable opponent. Ask the Jersey teachers union.

This would have worked only if the Republican base had been willing to cut him slack on performance and ideology. Pickup-team campaign organizations make mistakes, but with our politics bordering on the tribal, there’s no patience for the merest whiff of heresy. Ask Rick Perry, now bogged down in the immigration quicksand. Some similar act of imperfection awaited Chris Christie. The purifying furies of the Web forest would have been on him in minutes.

Feel free to believe he said “No” only because of organizational challenges. I think something purely political scared him off. It might behoove the hyper-energized conservative base to look in the mirror and ask why Chris Christie is only the latest to take a pass on the gauntlet.

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