Is Chris Christie “dead” as a candidate for 2016, as many pundits and political analysts have concluded? Not by a long shot. He’s down in many polls, but there’s a path to the White House for Christie, provided he survives the current scandals that surround him relatively intact, and that path—as you will see below—would be paved with vast sums of cash from ultraconservative billionaires, hedge fund moguls and corporate donors of all sorts.
Meanwhile, the fact that the national Democrats, including the Democratic National Committee, who’ve ginned up a major campaign effort to delegitimize Christie, including nonstop web ads, press releases and an effort to shadow Christie’s appearances as he travels around the country, provides the clearest possible evidence that the Dems know who the biggest threat to the Hillary Clinton juggernaut in 2016 is: Chris Christie. Perhaps, paraphrasing Will Shakespeare, the Democrats doth protest too much?
Yesterday, in Chicago, the beleaguered New Jersey governor unveiled what amounted to the first campaign appearance for his yet-to-be-announced (and, of course, perhaps never-to-happen) presidential bid. But if Christie intends to get to the White House, he’ll have to navigate a central paradox, namely: he presents himself as a pragmatic, center-right, “moderate” Republican who says that he’ll be able to work with Democrats in Washington—yet in order to win the votes of the increasingly far-right GOP primary voters, he’ll have to run as an orthodox conservative. In a Q&A at the Economic Club of Chicago, Christie tried to square this circle by saying that what the GOP needs most is “an authentic, believable spokesman for a new era in America.” And he stressed that it’s time for the Republican party to soften its ideological edge for Christie-style pragmatism:
I think as you look forward to 2016, our party’s priority should be on winning. Not winning the argument. Winning the election.… Parties tend to become pragmatic when they’re powerless. It’s time for us to get pragmatic.
For Christie, of course, one of his oft-cited accomplishments in New Jersey has been his ability to get Democrats to support his conservative agenda. But in New Jersey Christie has done that by wheeling and dealing with local Democratic party bosses in cities like Newark, Camden and Jersey City, often using close-to-blackmail pressures and financial blandishments, to get Democrats to support anti-union, small-government policies. Meanwhile, Christie blamed President Obama for failing to build “relationships” with Republicans in Washington—a strange charge indeed, since Obama spent nearly his entire first term begging the GOP to cooperate—and he added:
I thought political parties were formed in order to win elections, not to be debating societies, not to be academic institutions to debate the great esoteric issues of the day. When you win, you get to govern. When you get to govern, you get to make change.
To be sure, as will be detailed at great length in future installments of Christie Watch, Christie has spent his four-plus years as governor ripping into the teachers union and state employees, eviscerating the pension system and undermining the tax code, and he’s hardly the model of a cooperative, centrist politician. That’s what Christie hopes will endear him both to Chamber of Commerce–type Republicans, such as those who packed the room at the Economic Club, and to more radical-right Tea Party types as well. So yesterday, in his Chicago Q&A—before 1,600 people that literally represented a Who’s Who in the Windy City—Christie reached out to the Tea Party. Here’s how he put it:
Every political party has elements within it that present challenges. I believe that the Tea Party, in the main, represents some of the best of Republican principles: lower taxes, smaller government, restrained government.
But winning some of the angrier Tea Party voters will be an uphill struggle for the New Jersey governor. As ultraconservative Townhall.com tells us, perhaps too gleefully, in a poll conducted for the right-wing Washington Examiner, citing what they call a “semi-scientific” poll of more than 60,000 conservative activists,” Christie finished dead last—twenty-second out of twenty-two candidates and others, weirdly including Jon Huntsman—with Ted Cruz and Rand Paul topping the list. Still, while Christie may not match up well among far-right primary voters in places like Texas and among caucus-goers in Iowa, he’ll have a lot of appeal to more mainstream Republicans in places such as New Hampshire, across the Midwest and in Florida. And he’ll have lots and lots of money.
Christie himself is going out of his way to cultivate ties with the GOP’s big-money people. As fundraiser-in-chief for the Republican Governors Association, which Christie chairs, he’s been successful so far. According to the RGA, the group had a record-setting fundraising month in January, and this month Christie has pulled in $1.5 million in a Texas trip and another $1 million in Chicago. As a travels around the country—making stops in Utah, Massachusetts, Georgia, Michigan and Connecticut in the next few weeks—Christie is also building an even more powerful Rolodex of people he can call on if and when he decides to run for president in 2015. Indeed, he’s had such ties for many years. In 2011, led by Home Depot’s Frank Langone, a passel of billionaires including the Kochs and various hedge fund moguls tried to persuade Christie to run for the White House back then, but he demurred.
But he’s kept in touch, to say the least. At the Super Bowl, in the governor’s private box at MetLife stadium were ultra-wealthy GOP backers Harlan Crow and hedge funder magnates Paul Singer and Josh Harris. During a recent trip to Florida, he held fundraisers in Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale and met privately at Langone’s posh home with a large group of wealthy donors. And in Texas and Chicago Christie held similar tête-à-têtes with big-dollar donors. Perhaps most important, in Chicago Christie held a quiet, behind-the-scenes meeting with the man who is probably the Republican party’s leading candidate for governor, Bruce Rauner. (Another candidate for governor, Bill Brady, did attend Christie’s Economic Club event, and both candidates’ encounters with Christie contradicted Democrats’ charges that Republicans running for office don’t want to be seen with Christie.)
Rauner, a billionaire, is chairman of R8 Capital Partners, and his meeting with Christie was slammed by the Democratic Governors Association, who said that Rauner and Christie “make a perfect pair.” (The DGA didn’t point out that Rauner has also been close to Chicago’s Democratic mayor, Rahm Emanuel.) Besides meeting privately with Christie, Rauner also joined Christie at the evening fundraiser at the home of Kenneth C. Griffin, one of the truly biggest of the hedge fund kingpins, and the founder and CEO of Citadel LLC, whose personal wealth is said to top $4.4 billion. According to Mother Jones, Griffin is a participant in the Koch brothers’ secretive meetings of wealthy, ultraconservative donors.
Making it easier for Christie to bridge the gap between Wall Street and the Tea Party, some of Christie’s wealthiest supporters, such as the Kochs and Ken Griffin, are also supporters of the Tea Party’s various institutions.
Rauner, the Illinois candidate, has this in common with Christie: he’s a confirmed enemy of public sector unions. Listen to Rauner in an interview with the State Journal-Register last year: “As an outsider, those government union bosses can’t intimidate me. I’m not dependent on them for money or support or re-election, and I bring a unique set of skills that none of the politicians have.”
In a 2012 interview with The Chicago Tribune, Griffin—who calls himself “a Reagan Republican” who was “really proud to support Rahm”—frankly admits that his involvement in politics is designed to defend the interests of the über-rich. Griffin says that he’s “terrified that we as a country are headed in the wrong direction.” In the interview, Griffin goes on at length to praise the Kochs, and he complains that in the United States the wealthy have “insufficient influence.” On the Obama administration, Griffin says:
This is a very sad moment in my lifetime. This is the first time class warfare has really been embraced as a political tool. Because we are looking at an administration that has embraced class warfare as being politically expedient.… As government gets bigger every single day, how does my willingness to stand up for what I believe is right become eclipsed by my dependency on institutions that are ultimately controlled by the government?
Perhaps all that explains why Christie, in his Economic Club Q&A, lashed out at those who support efforts to redress inequality in the United States. The billionaires who support Christie are quite content to maintain the level of inequality as it exists today, and Christie pandered to them: “You want income equality? That is mediocrity. Everybody can have an equal, mediocre salary.”
Also, “The debate that needs to be had between the two parties needs to be: Do we want equality of income or greatness of opportunity?”
Needless to say, no Democrats—not President Obama, not Bill de Blasio or Elizabeth Warren—are talking about “income equality.” But the vast and growing chasm between the poor, minimum-wage workers and the middle class, on one hand, and the super-wealthy, the 1 percent, on the other, is a crisis and a national challenge.