Politics / January 11, 2024

Chris Christie’s Exit Marks the End of the Fight for the Soul of the GOP

He told the truth about the threat posed by Trump. DeSantis and Haley will never do that.

John Nichols
Republican presidential candidate former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announces he is dropping out of the race during a town hall campaign event Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024, in Windham, N.H. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Chris Christie announces he is dropping out of the race during a town hall campaign event Wednesday, January 10, 2024, in Windham, N.H.

(Robert F. Bukaty / AP)

Chris Christie quit his longshot bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination on Wednesday with all the political theater and rhetorical bombast that has historically characterized the grasping political career of this former federal prosecutor and governor of New Jersey. Yet, for all his foibles over the years, and for all the failings of his latest bid to position himself as a credible alternative to Donald Trump, Christie’s exit from the race still deals a blow both to his party and to the broader body politic.

Christie was the last high-profile GOP contender who was fighting for whatever remains of the soul of a Republican Party that, for all intents and purposes, has evolved into an authoritarian cult of personality with Trump as its center—posing what the former governor described as a real and present threat to democracy and national security.

Christie, a longtime Trump backer who ultimately came to his senses after Trump tried to overturn the 2020 election, mounted a 2024 campaign that aggressively challenged his party’s alarming deference to Trump, identified the former president as “a one-man crime wave,” and asserted that Trump had “earned every one” of his 91 criminal indictments. He argued that the other prominent contenders for the nomination—Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley—were unwilling to make an issue of the Republican front-runner’s criminality because they were “afraid to offend Donald Trump.” More importantly, Christie had the courage to demand that Republican voters answer the essential question: “Is this the type of conduct that we want from someone who wants to be president of the United States?”

An energetic and often masterful communicator—the only serious Republican rival, in this regard, to Trump—Christie made himself heard during a seven-month campaign that often put him on debate stages but that rarely earned him much applause. The cold shoulder was the answer to his question. Polls now show that almost two-thirds of Republicans accept Trump’s “type of conduct” and want him to be the party’s nominee for the third time in a row.

Christie—unlike, say, DeSantis—recognized the reality that his campaign could not overcome Trump’s dominance of the party. So, with just a few days to go before the first Republican caucuses in Iowa, and just a few more days to go before the first Republican primary in New Hampshire, Christie quit—telling a previously scheduled town hall meeting in Windham, N.H., “I’ve always said that there came a point in time in this race where I couldn’t see a path to accomplishing that goal that I would get out. And it’s clear to me tonight that there isn’t a path for me to win the nomination, which is why I’m suspending my campaign tonight for president.”

Christie, a relatively mainstream conservative, was under pressure to back the far more extreme Haley in the New Hampshire primary, where fresh polling suggests she is closing the gap on Trump. A CNN poll this week has Trump at 39 percent to 32 percent for Haley in the Granite State. That poll was one of several that had Christie running third in New Hampshire, pulling 12 percent. That relative show of strength inspired New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, a Haley backer, to urge Christie to “be a hero” and endorse the former UN ambassador.

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But there’s nothing heroic about Haley’s candidacy. Yes, she is running against Trump, and she might even best him in New Hampshire. But she’s not willing to challenge Trump in a meaningful way. She signaled months ago that she would support Trump if he’s nominated this summer, as did DeSantis. And Haley has said that, if she were to somehow become president, she would pardon her Republican predecessor. That kind of talk led Christie to suggest, in a hot-mic moment on Wednesday evening, “She’s going to get smoked, and you and I both know it. She’s not up to this.”

It was a fair assessment of Haley’s candidacy, and of the even weaker bid by DeSantis.

Even now, as they desperately battle to catch up with Trump, or at least to be his chief rival, the frequent criticism of the former president from DeSantis and Haley is that he’s not right-wing enough on particular issues—as was illustrated in Wednesday night’s pathetic excuse for a debate between the pair.

Christie’s bottom line concerning the Republicans he eschewed endorsing on Wednesday was the right one: “Anyone who is unwilling to say [Trump] is unfit to be president of the United States is unfit to be president of the United States.”

Christie likes the spotlight, so it’s imaginable that he might yet align with a final “Stop Trump” bid by a former rival such as Haley. But, with the loud-mouthed New Jerseyan out of the race, it’s silly to imagine that another “name” candidate will echo his line of attack and thus risk offending Trump’s large and fiercely loyal base within the GOP. (Straight-talking former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who has also been critical of Trump, is technically still in the running, but his campaign is so under the radar that many Iowans don’t even know he’s a candidate.) The Republican Party may be renewed at some point. But, for this election year, the fight is finished.

The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, spoke at the close of his 1861 inaugural address, at a time when the country was literally tearing itself apart, of his longing for a renewing moment when the sound of “the better angels of our nature” might again be heard.

Chris Christie is no angel.

But he was better than his rivals.

And now that he is out of the running, the last slim hope that responsible Republicans might right the course of their party in 2024 has been extinguished.

John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

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