‘Politics Is a Feeling’

All my friends in politics on the Republican side are feeling dour, angry, frustrated, furrow-browed. That’s understandable. Progressivism may look tottery at the moment, but Republicans don’t know how to knock it down and are at odds over what to replace it with. Interparty friction is high: The GOP is a bird with a lot of wings. Intellectuals on the conservative side are doing their best to argue through the party’s stands, but for all their earnest efforts there’s that simmering and intractable thing, the problem with the Republican brand. Everyone’s fretful.

Which is why time spent with Gov. Chris Christie this week felt like a tonic, an antidote to the prevailing mood. What I saw as he kicked off a seven-day New Jersey bus tour was the lost pleasure of politics. We forget: It’s supposed to be fun. Mr. Christie is cruising to a big win as a red-state figure in a deep blue state, so he’s got a lot to be happy about. But his pleasure in the game and the meaning of the game—his remembering that on some level it is a game, to be won or lost, to cheers or boos—is a clue to the mood with which a great party might approach its work. So here we put aside policy questions to take a look at what winning looks like, and sounds like.

First Lady Mary Pat and Governor Chris Christie
As New Jersey First Lady Mary Pat Christie leads the way, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as greets supporters in Linden, N.J., during a campaign stop.
Mr. Christie on the trail: hustle, bustle, applause, cameras, hugging—a lot—autographing. Everybody’s smartphone in the air. “Governor, Governor!” The crowds are big and enthusiastic. A stop in Linden had people lined up four and five deep more than half a block down the main street. It was the kind of crowd a presidential candidate gets early on. A woman—60s, retired from a hospital—said, “I’m so excited, I feel like I’m meeting a movie star. He’s like me. I feel like he’s telling the truth.” Is she a Republican? “I’m a registered Democrat. I don’t care what party you’re from.” A woman at the Ritz Diner in Livingston told why she’s for Mr. Christie: “He can get things done because he can go between the aisles. Harry Reid and the president won’t even talk to the other side.” This was a prevailing theme: a yearning for bipartisan progress, and support for his abilities in this area. Ellie Cohen, a Democrat who knew Mr. Christie’s mother, Sandy, described her as colorful, funny, direct. “She was . . . Thelma Ritter, if you know what I mean. He’s like her.”

You forget Mr. Christie’s a rock star because he’s been one for a while. But he is, at least at home. There are 700,000 more registered Democrats in Jersey than Republicans. It is one of only a handful of states Barack Obama won in 2012 by a wider margin than in 2008. Mr. Christie, in the poll of polls on RealClearPolitics, is ahead by 25.4 points.

In the bus, in a big, business-class kind of seat in his big, billowing white shirt, Mr. Christie took questions.

What’s the magic number below which people like me will say, “Hmmm, Christie’s win was not as big as expected”?

“I have no idea what the magic number is because it changes all the time, because what the press does is react to the latest poll.” However, “historically if we do anything near what the public polls are now then there will be only one person in the history of the Republican party in New Jersey who will have done better.” That’s Thomas Kean, who won the governorship with 69.6% of the vote in 1985. “I’m not gonna beat Tom Kean.”

How do people treat him now, compared with four years ago, when he first ran?

“It’s an enormous difference. . . . Four years ago I think I was a bit of a curiosity. Now . .  people greet me like they really know me.”

What do you think you have become to the people of New Jersey?

“I’m one of them.” And they know it. “That’s the most powerful thing we’ve accomplished.” Livingston is upper-middle-class, Linden is blue-collar. It doesn’t matter: “I’m one of them.”

What changed everything was Hurricane Sandy. Before that he’d been tough, fast, YouTube man, toe to toe with angry teachers. That was his image. After Sandy people saw him as not only a battler but someone they could rely on, who could lead, who was “compassionate.” “I think that people got to know me.”

He quickly understood that how he handled Sandy would either bind him forever to the state or loosen and kill all binds. Thousands were without the basics—water, electricity. He realized that people felt “cut off—literally.” They needed information. In his news conferences he was specific, detailed.

But not every leader gets a storm, and not every leader handles it well. How do you get Democrats to consider voting for a Republican?

“You gotta show up—regularly, consistently. And you gotta listen. You can’t always talk at people, you have to listen.” He said he’s spent the past three years in town halls, at community meetings, ignoring counsel to skip places where he can’t win. He mentions Irvington, in Essex County. “I got 4.7% of the vote four years ago.” He went there anyway “and took lots of really hard questions.”

To show up is to show respect. “If you show up and let them know you care about them, they’re willing to give you a chance.” That doesn’t mean you’ll change their minds, but “everybody’s the same . . . people want to be paid attention to.”

Is Jersey a microcosm of America?

“No. New Jersey is more liberal than America.” But there is one way it is like America: ethnic diversity. “What we have in New Jersey is you have everyone that’s in America today.”

I asked what reporters and pundits and movement conservatives and liberals miss when they look at modern politics.

“I would say this: I think that people who observe what’s going on in New Jersey . . . many of them completely misevaluate what’s going on here in this election. They misunderstand what people want from someone in political life right now. I think [voters] want someone who’s going to solve their problems. And who’s gonna be practical. And who’s gonna listen to them. And who has a philosophy that they can live with—not that they [always] agree with. The only person that I agree with all the time is me. I don’t agree with anybody else all the time, and I think most people are like that.

“I think what [pundits] are missing here is everybody tries to kinda put everything in a little box . . . and I don’t think that’s what politics is. Politics is a feeling. It’s a visceral reaction to someone. Especially when you’re voting for an executive.

“So I think that everybody who tries to analyze this and put it into little boxes—which boxes does he check, which boxes doesn’t he check—I don’t think that’s the way people vote. And if that is the way people vote then no one’s going to be able to explain next Tuesday. No one will be able to explain it.”