POLITICS OCTOBER 4, 2011
A little over four years ago, a pair of wealthy businessmen made a foray into presidential politics on behalf of a charismatic, tough-talking, blue state Republican. Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone volunteered his considerable talents as fundraising chair of the candidate’s leadership PAC, while hedge fund billionaire Paul E. Singer served as the campaign’s east coast chairman. Charmed by the politician’s law and order bona fides, pro-business conservatism, and swing state appeal, the two billionaires helped raise an impressive $60.9 million dollars for their candidate in 2007. But the millions were in vain. Rudy Giuliani’s New Yorker persona and moderate approach to social issues stood sharply at odds with the mood of the Republican base and ultimately quashed his campaign.
Four years later, however, the Giuliani failure does not seem to have dissuaded Langone and Singer from championing another New York metro area Republican in the presidential primaries. These days the two men are leading the charge to draft New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie, who, like Giuliani, is a tough-talking former prosecutor who’s fiscally conservative but moderate on social issues. Indeed, with so many parallels between the two candidates, perhaps it is no surprise that key backers of Giuliani’s 2008 bid have turned to the New Jersey governor in 2012. Langone, Singer, and other billionaire supporters appear to be gambling that, social issues be damned, Christie’s tough cop attitude will seduce the base. But all the conservative commentators I talked to agree: The same dynamics that torched Giuliani’s national bid will likely cause trouble for Christie.
In many ways, Christie’s ascendency as a political figure follows the same path Rudy Giuliani blazed two decades earlier. Giuliani’s political star began to rise in the 1980s when he served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and won high profile convictions of mafia dons and Wall Street frauds like Michael Milken. Christie, similarly, built a sterling resume from 2002 to 2008 as U.S. Attorney for the state of New Jersey. Like Giuliani, he leapt from the prosecutor’s office and landed in the executive’s chair. And also like Giuliani, Christie’s political popularity became inseparable from his image as the consummate courtroom brawler. This prosecutorial Christie can be seen at length on YouTube, where he has become something of a viral video sensation. In June, Christie was captured telling a New Jersey woman “It’s none of your business” whether his children attend private schools. And Christie’s tone turns positively martial when he takes up the subject of public sector unions. Addressing powerful conservatives assembled at a Koch Brothers retreat this summer, he proclaimed: “We need to take on the teachers’ union once and for all.”
But just as Giuliani received a rough wake-up call when he tried to take his tough-talking act on the GOP campaign trail, the conservative commentators with whom I spoke all had doubts that Christie’s persona will be enough to propel him to victory. To begin, George Will told me, Christie is currently enjoying a honeymoon in the conservative press that won’t last long. Will likes Christie, but said that the governor’s best day as a candidate would be “the day before he announced. Various factions would find imperfections.”
And when it comes to Christie, there are plenty of imperfections to go around, including moderate stances on gun control and climate change. As Washington Examiner political correspondent Tim Carney told me, conservatives expecting Christie to be one of them will be in for a rude surprise. “I don’t think of Chris Christie as a conservative,” says Carney. “He’s a keen pragmatist and problem-solver, and in New Jersey today, that means he’s a ruthless cutter willing to battle the government-employee unions.”
At this point in the election cycle four years ago, Giuliani was leading the polls, but his rapid collapse makes many believe the same fate would befall Christie among today’s rabid GOP primary voters. Even John Feehery, a strategist and president of communications for Quinn Gillespie and Associates who is bullish on Christie, admits that the governor’s path to the Republican nomination in September, 2012, in Tampa Bay is razor thin. Christie’s optimal strategy would be to “focus solely on fiscal issues,” Feehery says, then “survive the early states,” and “appeal to the [Rustbelt] conservative Catholics who will be very important later on in the Republican primary.” In order to avoid ending up like Giuliani, Christie can’t repeat the former mayor’s catastrophic decision to skip the early primaries; instead, says Feehery, he’s got to “walk in a crease” in Iowa and South Carolina, earning at least a strong second place in each, and “hold on until the winner-take-all states.”
But as political analyst Charlie Cook told me, those crucial early states make it quite doubtful “whether [Christie] could get through the hard-edged Republican Party of the present day.” All of which means that Christie might be right to resist the entreaties of his wealthy supporters—at least for now. Perhaps in four years, or eight, Republicans’ fervor for purity tests will have passed and there will be more room in the party for moderates with swing voter appeal. Indeed, according to Cook, Christie “may well be a prototype of the optimal Republican of the future.”
The irony is that Langone and Singer’s choice for president is just the kind of candidate Republicans need this cycle in order to beat Obama. According to Cook, “A New Jersey Republican who can win statewide in anything but a great Republican year would likely be well-positioned to compete in the key battleground state suburbs that are critical to win the presidency.” A McClatchy-Marist poll released two weeks ago showcases the dilemma. According to that poll, if the election were held now, neither Mitt Romney nor Rick Perry would beat Obama in a head-to-head matchup. The only Republican who would? None other than Rudy Giuliani.
Jarad Vary is an intern at The New Republic.