Chris Christie: The Longshot
Chris Christie made waves the other day after discussing his plan for Social Security reform: in his proposal, he argues for means testing benefits for people making more than $80,000 per year, eliminating benefits for people making more than $200,000 per year, and raising the retirement age all the way to 69. The excellent Harry Enten over at FiveThirtyEight.com did not mince words: he called the politics of the plan “atrocious,” noting that the Republican coalition has become increasingly elderly, and that Social Security remains the “third rail” of politics. While Enten is right on the politics for most candidates, strategically, this Social Security plan is an excellent starting point for a Christie campaign. Christie is best viewed as a “longshot” candidate that needs to take risks and try to change the “rules” of the nomination process. His odds are slim, but his approach is sound.
If Christie had run in 2011, as so many of us wanted him to do, he would have had a legitimate shot at the Republican nomination. He had a ready-made team from the ashes of Tim Pawlenty’s campaign that would have hit the ground running. The Tea Party was wary of Christie, but not incredibly opposed. Everyone was skeptical of Romney, who was incredibly vulnerable on Romneycare, but didn’t face a coherent challenger on the issue. The GOP field was incredibly weak. Christie’s lists of conservative heresies was still pretty short. His list of scandals at the time–things that we should have expected from any New Jersey politician–was also short. And perhaps most importantly, Republican voters really wanted Christie to run. (Check out this video from September 2011 at about 40:00 in. One question is not a trend, obviously, but there were a lot of Republicans who sympathized.) The proverbial iron was hot; the time was then.
But four years later, the world has changed a lot for Christie. First, he alienated the Right by appearing to abandon Mitt Romney–fairly or not–after Superstorm Sandy in the days leading up to the 2012 election. This would have been survivable, but for Blunder Road, which sapped his moderate/Centrist support. We’ve seen a few other scandals emerge, but the real issue for Christie is that instead of triumphantly marching into a second term with a bold policy agenda, he has mostly been on defense. (Christie with 60 percent approval ratings and moderate coattails might have been someone that could coerce vulnerable Democrats to vote with him. Christie at 35 percent? No chance.) He talks a big game about pension reform, but Christie’s second term has mostly fizzled.
So Christie is weaker right now, personally and politically. But he is also facing stronger opposition. Currently, Christie is–at best–the fourth-most likely Republican nominee. If I had to rank them, I would put at least seven Republicans ahead of Christie, in terms of likelihood of winning the nomination: Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul all strike me as more likely than Christie at this stage, and it is hard to imagining all of those candidates damaging themselves or opting out of the race. Jeb and Rubio entering early particularly hurt Christie: Jeb has been boxing Christie out among donors, and Rubio looks like the most plausible alternative to Jeb, if the establishment starts to fear that Jeb won’t gain traction.)
Put all of this together, and things look pretty bleak for Christie. He is a longshot.
If Christie had run in late 2011–with only Mitt Romney as a plausible opponent–and his first move was to announce this Social Security plan, then this would be incredibly silly for all of the reasons that Enten discussed.
But because a longshot by definition has so little to lose, high-risk plays are the ones worth making. Sometimes, the rules change; things that used to be verboten all of a sudden stop being bad ideas. (Obama’s “meeting with our friends and enemies” comment from 2007 comes to mind on this; it ended up serving his campaign well, on balance, as it allowed him to distinguish himself from Hillary Clinton.) Christie may well be able to combine the force of his personality and an aggressive policy program to get a strong showing in what will assuredly be a divided New Hampshire. He may attract donors and supporters who like the idea of a more “serious” Republican. It is basically his only hope. I have suggested in the past that Christie’s approach should be something like “radical authenticity“; this move goes in that direction.
Let’s be clear: it probably won’t work. But if Christie’s team is not approaching the race like a longshot candidate, they don’t stand a chance.