Odds are that New Jersey governor Chris Christie will jump into the presidential race today (Tuesday) or tomorrow – which says a lot about how the 2012 GOP presidential primary contest has shaped up, and where it will go. Christie’s entry could change everything.
The 2012 dynamics are totally different from those of 2008. And it’s a good thing, too.
Last time around, the GOP voters broke into three issue-oriented groups – those who gave priority to economics, to social issues, and to national security.
No candidate clearly won the economic voters. They should have been the ticket to the nomination for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney or former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani. But when the conductor came around, both their tickets were missing.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee cornered the market on social issue voters. But Huckabee had nothing of substance to say about security and called for economic policies unacceptable to most Republicans.
That left the field open to Arizona senator and ultimate nominee John McCain, who won national security voters as convincingly as Huckabee won social issue voters. While he was not the first choice of those who put taxes, spending, and other economic policies first, McCain was good-enough – though barely good enough — for them, as he was for social issue voters. So he got the party’s nod.
This time it’s different.
The Obama administration’s catastrophic fiscal, monetary, regulatory, and trade policies (have they done anything right in this sphere?) have given economics top priority in virtually everyone’s mind. The next president and congress must move quickly to undo the damage they’ve done. Spending must be cut. Growth-inducing tax rates must be installed. Arbitrary and massively destructive environmental, financial, and a long list from other categories of regulations must be cancelled. Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, and (my candidate for the list) Sarbanes-Oxley must be repealed. I could go on. But you get the idea. This is not 2008.
To make matters worse, GOP voters are trying to get their minds around a developing national security crisis. The missions in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down, but no one believes the region has ceased to be a serious source of threats. Meanwhile, our military’s capacity is declining. China’s is rising — and becoming aggressive. At the same time, an alliance appears to be forming among such bad actors as Iran, Venezuela, and various criminal and terrorist groups. The Europeans are degenerating into empty allies with little will and almost no capacity. The jury remains out on whether the U.K. fits that characterization, too.
So in the world of 2012, GOP voters are looking for a candidate who solidly checks the economic box and has the strength to deal with the rising global challenges. And there isn’t enough room among the candidates for social issues to play major differentiating role in winning the nomination.
Three weeks ago, it looked as though Republican voters were dividing into two clusters. One looked a lot like the people who backed Ronald Reagan for the nomination in 1980, the other like those who backed George H. W. Bush the same year. The Bush cluster was more or less supporting Romney. The Reagan cluster was starting to coalesce around Texas governor Rick Perry. But then Perry stumbled in debates. Pressure began to build for Christie to enter the race.
Christie has the capacity to unite the two clusters, a feat none of the other candidates is even close to pulling off.
Early this year, he captured the imagination of the Republican Party and conservative movement with the way he took on badgering teachers in town hall meetings. The YouTube videos (one has received more than a million views) of his respectful but tough, clear, and persuasive manner in confronting teachers-union-inspired challenges won him wide admiration. At the C-PAC convention in February, his was the only name that drew spontaneous cheers whenever it was uttered.
Then there was his triumphant performance at the Reagan Library last week – the very best American political performance in years – and the implicit endorsement he received from Ronald Reagan’s widow Nancy. The next day Christie was reported to have also taken calls urging him to run from former First Lady Barbara Bush and her son, former president George W. Bush.
As of this morning, the GOP race is down to four men. Going by the latest Rasmussen polls, Romney and Christie are effectively tied with the president. Business executive Herman Cain is five points behind Mr. Obama. Perry lags by six. No one else counts.
But if he can unite and energize the Reagan and Bush clusters and despite the move of the Florida primary to January, Christie’s actual entrance into the race has the capacity to change everything.