Chris Christie should run for president now, assuming he aspires to ever hold that office. The GOP field for 2012 remains wide open, while there is no telling how a 2016 (or later) field could shape up. The economy is the focal point this cycle, so Christie’s reputation as a budget-cutting governor suits the times. And popularity in politics is often fleeting, particularly for a Republican from Democrat-heavy New Jersey.
Dan Quayle was once a Hoosier hero after being elected the youngest U.S. senator in Indiana history. Four years ago, actor and former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson from Tennessee was seen as a GOP savior. And there was a time when the name of South Carolina’s former Gov. Mark Sanford was bandied about as presidential timber. But politics is shaped like a football, and there is no telling where Christie’s fortunes might bounce in the years ahead.
Consider that a Quinnipiac University poll released last week found the governor with his lowest approval ratings yet — 44 percent approve of the job he’s doing, while 47 disapprove. That’s down from February, when 52 percent approved of his job performance, and 40 did not. Over the last year, his average approval rating in seven Quinnipiac polls has been 48 percent.
Those numbers aren’t terrible, but they do reinforce the notion that Christie’s reelection in 2013 is far from a certainty. He’s an aggressive, mostly conservative chief executive in a fickle, traditionally Democratic state. And should he seek reelection and lose, he will jeopardize his opportunity to run for president. Witness Rick Santorum. He’s attempting to break out of the “no opinion” range in national polls while explaining how he can be elected president despite losing his U.S. Senate seat from Pennsylvania, his home state, by 18 points in 2006.
Christie’s personality guarantees that there will be plenty of opportunity for him to both score and lose political favor. A question posed during a special interactive television show last week was a prime example.
The incident began when a Garden State resident named Gail wondered why the governor, whose children attend parochial school, felt comfortable cutting funding for public schools.
“Hey, Gail, you know what?” Christie snapped. “First off, it’s none of your business. I don’t ask you where you send your kids to school. Don’t bother me about where I send mine.”
The incident showcased Christie’s best and worst.
Those who like him were reinforced in their belief that he is different: a real guy, a visceral leader who doesn’t put his finger to the wind when he makes policy decisions or public statements. Detractors were reminded that he can also be a blustery hothead who lives in a glass house.
During his first year and a half in office, Christie’s better half has generally won out. At home, he has been successful in implementing his fiscal vision and keeping his political opponents on the defensive. The most recent example is the support of the state Legislature — with solid Democratic majorities — for Christie’s plan to get public employees to contribute more to their benefits. Across the country, he has become a media sensation and a darling of a growing cadre of conservatives dissatisfied with the crop of GOP presidential contenders.
Many want Christie to run. A group of influential GOP donors from first-in-the-nation Iowa dined at Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion in Princeton, a few weeks ago in the hopes of pulling him into the race. Last week, 10 conservative legislators from South Carolina, home to another high-stakes early presidential primary, made their own appeal as well.
For months, Christie has been unequivocal in his refusals. To the extent that he believes two years in office is too soon to advance, he need only look at the example set by the present commander in chief, who ran for president two years after being elected a U.S. senator.
Now is the time for a national Christie candidacy. By 2016, the shine might be off the apple (or the Jersey tomato) and he could easily be “former” Gov. Christie. God forbid, but the dominant issue might go from budgets and economic issues to terrorism. And who is to say what GOP star power might look like next time. Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan? Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio? Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana?
Christie’s choice in 2012 is as clear as a sunny day on an Ocean City beach. Fly by the seat of his political pants now, when the field is open and the issues are well-suited for him. Or wait, and risk letting voters like Gail coalesce and make the choice for him.
Contact Michael Smerconish via www.smerconish.com. Read his columns at www.philly.com/smerconish