The news that Sarah Palin has decided not to run for president is the greatest non-event of the campaign so far, since there was never any danger of her wrecking her highly lucrative brand in the way that a presidential run would have done overnight. She might have teased and flirted, turning up to the Iowa straw poll at the same time as the other, genuine candidates, but she never had the slightest intention of actually entering a race in which she was bound to lose badly, with its disastrous knock-on effects for her Fox News contract, her book deals and her TV reality show. These all depend on her not being humiliated nationally, which would have been the inevitable result of a run. With only 21 per cent of Americans having a favourable view of her (according to the latest CBS poll, a number that hasn’t altered much in a year), there was no possible way that she was going to be chosen by Republicans — a full 33 per cent of whom have an “unfavourable” view of her — to run against President Obama, who for all his bad poll showings on the economy is still personally liked by the majority of Americans.
Far more interesting news, and important for the future, was Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey’s decision not to enter the race. When the historian James Pope-Hennessy was murdered by a rent-boy in 1974, his former lover James Lees-Milne pronounced himself “shocked, but not surprised”.
It is sometimes possible to be both, and that is how the Republican Party feels about Christie’s definitive, last and utterly final decision not to seek the Republican nomination. They are shocked because they assumed that the almost open field must turn the head of so obviously ambitious a politician. They are not surprised because last November Christie said: “Short of suicide, I don’t really know what I have to do to convince you people that I’m not running. I’m not running.” The fact that he chose to end the present speculation with the words “Now is not my time” implies that 2016 might be, assuming Obama is re-elected next year.
The Christie phenomenon tells us much about how deeply unimpressed the Grand Old Party is with its present field of candidates, as well as the subterranean fear that if Mitt Romney is chosen, the Tea Party might put up a third party candidate against him, thereby giving the election to Obama in the same way that Ross Perot gave the 1992 election to Bill Clinton. Christie’s fiscal conservatism and punchy personality would have ended any danger of that happening, and united the party in a way that Romney will find problematic with the Tea Party purists. After Christie’s announcement, Romney wasted no time before wooing him as “a terrific person to have on the ticket”. Although Christie isn’t running, the five theories one hears about why he is not tell us much that is interesting and important about the 2012 and 2016 races.
According to the first and most obvious theory, Christie thinks Obama is going to win and therefore wants to wait until the election of 2016, when Christie will still be only 54 and has a viable chance of winning. Although that race will feature a much better slew of Republican candidates — probably including Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jinda — Christie is thought not to want to run in 2012 only to become another Bob Dole or John McCain. This theory is plain wrong: at a private dinner party last month Christie explained to me and others at length why he thought Obama was eminently beatable next year, especially when the US currently has a 9.1 per cent unemployment rate, a tanking stock market, and Obama himself merely a 39 per cent approval rating. For all the president’s undoubted electioneering eloquence, none has been re-elected with unemployment so high in America since the days of FDR.
The next theory is that Christie has skeletons in his political closet, which he doesn’t want exposed to the full glare of an American presidential campaign. These tend to range from favours done in his days as a political lobbyist, to the fact that the Genovese family mobster boss Tino Fiumara is his aunt’s husband’s late brother. Christie also awarded a multimillion dollar, no-bid contract to David Kelley, another former US attorney, who had previously cleared Christie’s brother Todd of a 2005 fraud case involving traders at the Wall Street firm of Spear, Leeds & Kellogg. Yet as US Attorney for New Jersey from 2002 to 2008, Christie was a crime-busting lawyer who won every one of the 130 high-profile corruption cases he prosecuted, and so he was bound to make some enemies in the process. Besides, helping out one’s brother in America comes under the general heading of believing in family values. If these issues failed to prevent him winning the governorship of New Jersey long after they came to light, would they really be more dangerous to his national chances?
The third theory is that Christie’s obesity effectively ruled him out, and his recent hospitalising asthma attack would spook health-fanatical Americans too much. “Look, I’m sorry,” wrote Bloomberg’s Michael Kinsley, “but New Jersey Governor Chris Christie cannot be president: he is just too fat.” Headlines such as “Is Christie Fit to Run for President?” clearly riled the governor in a way that the late-night comedians did not, and he finally snapped, saying: “To say because you are overweight you are undisciplined — I don’t think undisciplined people get to achieve great positions in our society — that kind of stuff is just ignorant. The people who wrote it are ignorant people. What they do is they further stigmatise people in a way that is really irrelevant to people’s ability to do a particular job.” Of course he’s right, and William Howard Taft left the White House weighing over 300 lbs, but in a country where both fanatical jogging and morbid obesity are rife, Christie’s weight was bound to be an issue. (Of course in electoral terms, if he managed to snaffle the vote of every overweight American, he would more than counter Obama’s present tally of 92 per cent of black Americans.)
The fourth theory bandied about to explain his decision not to run is that his family were apparently adamantly opposed to it. Chris and Mary Pat Foster were college sweethearts who studied at the University of Delaware together, and married aged 24. They have four children between the ages of eight and 18. What few people appreciate about the delightful but formidable Mary Pat Christie is that she is easily as politically savvy as he is, and was just as active in the college Republican society when they were undergraduates. At the dinners of senior Republicans, media moguls, elder statesmen and Fortune 500 company CEOs that I’ve attended, her opinion on politics is almost as eagerly sought as his. They can finish each other’s sentences. Occasionally wives do stop their husbands running for president — Alma Powell is credited with opposing Colin’s candidacy, for example, and Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana is thought to have bowed to family pressure not to run — but if Mary Christie was adamantly opposed to her husband’s bid, it would have been for sound political, rather than namby-pamby personal reasons.
The last theory is that Christie wouldn’t have won the nomination even if he had stood. His stance on the Second Amendment — the right to bear arms — is considerably at odds with that of the conservatives, as he supports stricter enforcement of existing gun laws, and probably new ones too. New Jersey also does not actively prosecute illegal immigrants. Indeed, in 2008, Christie stated publicly: “Being in this country without proper documentation is not a crime.” These views might be perfect for winning independent and Hispanic votes in the general election, but they don’t resonate at all with the grassroot Republicans who choose the presidential candidate in the primaries.
So people suggest that Christie flunked the race because he would have been squeezed into the dangerous spot on the podium to the left of Romney and even Jon Huntsman, a place where all his brains, eloquence and charisma could not have saved him.
I don’t believe any of these five theories were the principal motivating factors that lay behind Christie’s decision, although of course some of them must have lurked at the back of his and Mary’s minds. Christie believes — rightly in my view — that Obama became president too early after only four years in the Senate and his inexperience is showing, so he does not want to make the same error himself. By 2016 he will have a solid raft of achievements in New Jersey that he can sell to the American people, and it’ll be worth noting if he starts prosecuting undocumented aliens and losing three or four stone in weight in the meantime. I believe him when he told a fan at the Ronald Reagan Library who had begged him to run: “It’s extraordinarily flattering, but by the same token that heartfelt message you gave me is also not a reason for me to do it. That reason has to reside inside me.”
Cyril Connolly said that inside every fat man is a thin man trying to get out; residing inside Chris Christie is a president who is biding his time.