Let’s take a look at three Republicans, one of whom says he won’t run for president, one of whom says he may, and one who will.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, on a radio call-in show in Philadelphia, was asked again this week if he’s tired of being asked if he’ll run for president. No, he said, “I’m a kid from Jersey who has people asking him to run for president. I’m thrilled by it, I just don’t want it.”
It was vintage Christie. He loves the kid-from-Jersey stuff, and he’s good at it. He has, and one suspects cultivates, a kind of working-class patina (blunt, disheveled, overweight, no-nonsense, satirical) that Republicans of a certain sort used to sniff at and now adore. Their ideal candidate would be a guy who looks and talks like a union boss but quotes Hayek. Anyway, Mr. Christie’s Philadelphia comments were almost as good as what he told Matt Bai of the New York Times in February. When Bai asked him if the presidential talk was getting tiresome, Mr. Christie broke into an imitation of a politician taking himself too seriously: “Oh, Matt, please, stop asking me about whether I should be president of the United States! The leader of the free world! Please stop! I’m exhausted by the question! I mean, come on. If I get to that point, just slap me around, because that’s really presumptuous. What it is to me is astonishing, not exhausting.”
What’s interesting about the Christie-for-president thing is it doesn’t go away, even after months of Shermanesque announcements that he isn’t ready and doesn’t want it. Why would that be? In part it’s that he says “no” with charm and deep cleverness. He could say, “I’ve only been governor for 16 months, I don’t have anything remotely like the level of experience needed at a time like this.” But he doesn’t, quite. And it’s possible he just thinks President Obama’s going to win and doesn’t want to be the guy who loses to him.
What I suspect people like most about him, apart from policy, is what they liked about Tim Russert: He was normal. A lot of people at this point in history think only the abnormal run for president. Only the abnormal want their finger on the button or want responsibility for epic economic decisions. Or maybe people think only weirdos and dullards want it—weirdos because they like the heightened nature of everything about the presidency, dullards because they don’t fully understand what they’re getting into. The fact that Mr. Christie says he doesn’t want it marks him as normal, which makes people want him more. He can give as many Shermanesque statements as he likes, but if the field continues to look thin he’s going to face a draft-Christie movement.
Actually there was a report this week that big Iowa donors are coming to meet with him late in the month, so maybe it’s already begun.
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Newt Gingrich announced he is in this week. The news hit some in the media with a certain electric jolt, but not Republicans, most of whom assumed he was running and seem not that interested. Mr. Gingrich is a vigorous and compelling explainer of generally conservative positions and beliefs, and he will be interesting in debate. But . . . well, I have yet to meet a Gingrich 2012 supporter. He is a vivid figure who drew a vivid response during the Clinton years. He turned off people then whom he will never win to his side. He is politically and personally controversial; those who worked with him longest in the House liked him least. After 30 years on the national scene, he will find his candidacy affected by the old maxim that friends come and go but enemies accumulate.
On the hustings, he’ll always draw appreciative crowds, and they’ll stand in line for his autographed books. But they will not choose him for president. They will say, “He should be in the next cabinet, an idea man who runs—or, better, creatively shuts down—some big agency.”
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Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels told reporters at a lunch in New York 10 days ago that he has set a deadline on his deliberations. He’ll decide if he will run for president “by the end of the month.” I asked if he’d announce his decision soon after. Yes, he said, he didn’t want to play it “cute.” If he decides to get, in he’ll get in. This month ends the day after Memorial Day. Daniels has a book due out in the fall. It would be odd to announce a few months before its release that you weren’t running, for that would undercut the ostensible purpose of a book—to disseminate your views—and undercut sales.
My biggest takeaway from the lunch is what a great actor he is. I couldn’t tell from his demeanor, comments, language or expression which way he’s leaning, and at this point he at least knows that. His office says his schedule is free Memorial Day weekend, except for the Indy 500, which he plans to attend, subject to change.
Vroom vroom. Maybe more will start there than cars.
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If we’re coming up on an election year, we’re about to enter Full Oppo Shakedown. Republican operatives and hirelings are doing opposition research—digging deep, following personal and financial leads—on the guys who are running against their candidates. Obama operatives also be on the case, or already are. And so a thought on personal lives and the current election year.
I think it’s possible that this year, because of the special nature of the times—we live through unprecedented and ongoing crises in the economy and foreign policy—the American people may be less interested in the personal stories, foibles and family situations of those running for president than in the past. They’ll still be interested, but these things won’t seem as serious or even decisive as they have sometimes been. The current air of crisis may make such things look like a luxury the country can ill afford.
The reigning assumption, or cliché, is that the American people have a censorious side and are puritanical about their politicians, demanding a lifetime of personal rectitude. I don’t think that’s been true in the modern era. When Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, he won in spite of being famously surrounded by rumors about his personal life. Gennifer Flowers held news conferences, the National Enquirer was in on the act. People elected Mr. Clinton anyway. They didn’t judge him harshly. They knew that on becoming president he wouldn’t do anything embarrassing. Then came Monica Lewinsky, which was his mistake: The past is the past, but that was the present—and in the Oval Office! For that they punished him, with the strictest punishment there was: impeachment.
I think Americans right now, but particularly with the current crises, will be generally inclined to give pretty much everyone a break. As long as all mischief is confined to the past. They won’t accept it in the present. That’s what did in John Edwards. It wasn’t rumors of past girls, it was a girl on the plane during the campaign. Americans will come down on you hard for that.