From Chris Christie Headquarters, February 2015
As you probably know, we at Ordinary Times have spies everywhere. So it was unsurprising that one of our dedicated field operatives in the swamps of Jersey came into a secret tape of a conversation between Chris Christie and two of his aides. It was hard to make out their voices or names, so we’re calling them Riley Jones and Casey Smith for the purposes of this transcript. Forensic analysis of the tape indicated that it was recorded in February 2015, just when Chris Christie and his team were evaluating their prospects for the 2016 Republican nomination. We managed to salvage a fair bit of the conversation, which went something like this:
Chris Christie: It’s not going to be that bad out there. It’s just not.
Riley Jones: Jeb Bush looks like a juggernaut. He’s locked up all of your donors.
Christie: Jeb Bush hasn’t won an election since 2002, and he’s a terrible retail politician.
Casey Smith: Governor, the Republicans have a stellar slate of potential candidates. I know Romney said he’s not running, but my goodness, those senators. John Thune just looks like a president, and he’s gonna run. I hear Rubio hates it there; I bet he runs too. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, these folks have been angling for a while. The field’s going to be incredibly crowded, plus Jeb.
Christie: Look, the last time we nominated an all-talk no-record senator, we got Obama, and no Republican’s gonna want to do that again. Everyone hates the Senate and its arcane policy debates that no one cares about. The nominee will be a governor.
Jones: Walker’s gonna be tough. And so is Perry.
Christie: I was chair of the RGA, I know all these guys. Walker’s the most boring guy I’ve ever met. Have you ever met him? He talks about buying clothes at Kohl’s, for crying out loud. And I can think of three reasons why Perry won’t succeed: he’s from Texas, he sounds like George W. Bush, and, um, I forget the third.
Smith: Hah, I get it, governor. What about Susana Martinez?
Christie: She’s not gonna run, but she’s a perfect VP choice.
Smith: What about Bobby Jindal? Conservatives love him and he’s whip smart.
Christie: He’s down to friends and family-level approval ratings in Louisiana. I can go all night, guys. Nobody’s unbeatable here.
Jones: The problem is your record. You’re a second-term governor from New Jersey. You’re about as conservative as imaginable for the state, and that’s nowhere near conservative enough for the Republican primaries.
Christie: [pauses] Look, I want to do this. I’m not going to have a bunch of shots at this, and I can’t let the chance slide again.
Smith: OK, governor, we’re with you.
Jones: Well, if you’re going to run…
Christie: I am.
Jones: Then you’re going to have to come up with good answers for your heresies.
Jones: You know, where you differ from the Republican base. Where your time at Drumthwacket forced you into positions that put you out-of-step with the zeitgeist. You know, gun control, stuff like that.
Smith: Nope, he should just lie.
Smith: Yep. Just lie. Nobody cares if people lie. Obama swore he had no interest in running for president in 2005. All of a sudden he changes his mind, and everyone forgets all about those denials.
Christie: Hillary Clinton’s said the same thing for the last seven years. It’s such phoniness.
Jones: But there’s a difference between the silly lies that we all have to do as part of political posturing and a genuine lie. Like, “Oh, I feel so humbled by this.” Bogus; you’re not humbled, you’re incredibly arrogant, if you’re running for president. And you damn well better be! But that’s just rhetorical positioning. Not everything in politics is just rhetoric.
Smith: Let me give you an example. Governor Christie supported Sonya Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court back in the 2009 campaign. That’s not something that will play well in a Republican primary.
Christie: Yeah, we were trying to run to the center then.
Smith: Just deny it.
Jones: Um, have you heard of Google?
Smith: The field is so big that no one is going to check all this stuff out. Just say it with conviction.
Jones: Why not defend it? Say something like, “There was no reason to oppose Sotomayor. The Democrats had the whole Senate and she was going to be nominated anyway. And presidents should get some latitude with their appointments. Why create ill-will for no potential gain? Fruitlessly opposing nominations is how senators pretend that they’re being principled without actually accomplishing anything.”
Smith: Nope, just lie about it. You didn’t support Sotomayor.
Jones: OK, fine, there was a statement released by the campaign, but I guess we can spin it. But what about this one: Governor, you donated to Planned Parenthood in 1994.
Christie: Yeah, but… you know, I was just out of law school a few years ago and I bought into a lot of that for the time. I didn’t change my mind until I had my kids, you know?
Smith: Nope, you just never donated to Planned Parenthood.
Jones: What?? It’s right there, right in print! He did donate. He just said he did! Why not argue it? Say that becoming a father really changed you, that you rediscovered your Catholic faith, that seeing the ultrasound of your child was the most beautiful thing in the world, that you deeply regret your past position, just like Norma McCorvey, and part of why you’re in this race is to atone for your error. Make the case! Prove that people can be converted!
Smith: Too complicated; you’ll get eaten alive. Just deny it.
Jones: This is absurd.
Smith: No it isn’t.
Jones: What about Kaci Hickox?
Smith: The public is with us on her.
Jones: They might not be in a few months. What if everyone forgets about Ebola? Quarantine might look like an overreach.
Smith: Just say she was having symptoms, and that’s why you quarantined her.
Jones: She wasn’t having symptoms! Quarantine was perfectly justifiable: Ebola has a predictable incubation period, and doctors and nurses are the most common vectors of the disease. If it were a dangerous mosquito-borne disease, we’d be going after the mosquitoes, but Ebola multiples in humans, not bugs, and we were trying to be extremely cautious in an area of deep uncertainty. It was 21 days in the era of WiFi and Netflix. It wasn’t torture or cruelty; It was just prudence! And public health is a legitimate government function. This is your wheelhouse, governor, make the case! Persuade people! You’re great on the stump; why do we have to resort to this chicanery?
Smith: Stop overthinking it. You can get away with anything, if you present it right.
Jones: No, I don’t buy it! Everybody accuses politicians of lying all the time, but usually, a lie is just…. it’s just a product of different implicit assumptions. So, when Barack Obama says that women get paid 77 cents for every dollar, we may think it’s a bogus stat, but it’s just the result of a study that has some flawed assumptions. It’s not a lie. Or if a senator thunders that our impending deal with Iran is a massive giveaway even if we’re not actually giving anything away explicitly. That’s not a lie, it’s just a unproven contention about what the implications of the agreement will be. Or when conservatives say that Obamacare is a government takeover of health care. It may not be a full takeover, but deciding exactly what insurance companies have to cover sure as heck can be argued is a takeover of the functions of a private market. Or, you know, when Paul Ryan says that Obamacare cut Medicare. Our liberal friends insist that was a lie, because the cuts were all about building efficiencies, or whatever. It’s not a lie, not by a longshot.
Smith: OK, so, yeah, we agree. We can make anything not be a lie if we think hard enough. That’s my point.
Jones: No, that’s not the point! There’s a lot of areas where the facts and realities are contested, so I’m all for flexibility on this. But these… these are just things that actually happened one way, and we’re just going to pretend that they happened the other way, instead of making an argument?
Smith: Yes. Welcome to 2015.
Jones: How can we run a campaign where our slogan is “Telling it Like it Is” if we’re just going to lie about everything?
Smith: Don’t worry about it. The important thing is to win New Hampshire. As long as we do that, all of the rest of this is irrelevant. Voters will back a winner.
(Obviously, the preceding was a fictionalized account of an early strategy session of the Chris Christie campaign.)