The Blind Ambition of Chris Christie

Chris Christie’s presidential announcement at a June town hall at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire may not have the drama of, say, a “West Wing” episode, but it does help clarify our current political moment and its most intriguing character. For over two hours — you could turn it into a mini-series — the former New Jersey governor and federal prosecutor builds a case against Donald Trump. To nominate him for the presidency again, he says, would be a moral and political disaster. “Trump made us smaller,” Mr. Christie tells his audience as he prowls the stage, explaining that he wants to go after Mr. Trump for two reasons: “One, he deserves it. And two, it’s the way to win.”

It’s a bold premise, but more sound than it might seem. Almost any pollster will tell you that Mr. Trump’s support is soft once you look beyond the MAGA base. A CNN poll conducted in late August found that 44 percent of Republican or Republican-leaning independents seriously worried that Mr. Trump’s legal issues could impair his ability to win the general election. Mr. Christie is the only candidate speaking directly, specifically, to this fear. A separate poll found that almost a third of Republican voters who intend to support Mr. Trump may still change their mind based on what happens in the months leading up to the first votes being cast.

But in national surveys, Mr. Christie is still polling in the low single digits. Mr. Trump, meanwhile, looks increasingly inevitable. Even in New Hampshire, a state where moderate voters hold outsize influence, Mr. Christie is languishing in fourth place, at just 9 percent in the polls. Why isn’t his message resonating?

There are the obvious explanations: Mr. Trump has advantages as a former president, and his legal troubles have given him an excuse to present himself as an outsider, persecuted by the powers that be; Mr. Christie, meanwhile, is competing in a crowded field, packed with other candidates desperate for the same voters. But there is something deeper at work here, and it holds clues about what it would take to attack Mr. Trump successfully. Because while Mr. Christie may sound like the perfect Trump nemesis — pugnacious, outspoken, loud — he is a uniquely flawed foil for the former president, compromised in ways that blunt his most effective attacks. And though Mr. Christie’s journey through Republican politics is especially colorful — he is from New Jersey, after all — most of the other candidates are running up against similar problems as they struggle to maneuver through a political landscape forever changed by Donald Trump.

Voters know who Mr. Trump is. It’s Mr. Christie they have questions about. At the heart of the myth he tells about himself — as the Trump vanquisher the Republicans have been waiting for — is his time working as a federal prosecutor. “I’m a prosecutor at heart,” he said in a 2021 interview. His selection for the post of U.S. attorney for New Jersey in 2001 by the George W. Bush administration was mystifying. He had never tried a federal case or overseen a major criminal prosecution; his sole evident qualification was having helped to raise $350,000 for the Bush campaign.

A federal prosecutor has enormous latitude. His predecessor had opened a number of corruption cases involving public officials. Mr. Christie acted quickly on those and opened many of his own. And while he prosecuted members of both parties, it became clear that he had a particular knack for targeting prominent Democrats — particularly when it served his own political ambitions.

Sometime in 2005, Bush advisers began compiling a list of prosecutors they thought weren’t doing enough to help Republicans electorally. Mr. Christie made the list. Learning of his potential ouster, he promptly launched an investigation into Robert Menendez, who was running for his first full term in the Senate. Between 1994 and 2003, Mr. Menendez had made $300,000 by leasing a house to a community group. Yet it was not until Mr. Menendez was in a close Senate race and Mr. Christie was facing dismissal that the contract demanded urgent investigation. Mr. Bush’s staff seemed to discover a newfound appreciation for Christie, and he kept his job.

Near the end of the second Bush term, Mr. Christie seemed to have concluded that he was exempt from the ethical standards he once held others to. He lavishly overspent on hotel rooms, handed out dubious legal oversight contracts (as much as $52 million to a former U.S. attorney general, John Ashcroft) and made questionable loans ($46,000 to Michele Brown, a subordinate who doubled as a political adviser). He hired a friend’s son “over objections,” reported The Star-Ledger, “from nearly every assistant U.S. attorney who interviewed him.”

By the time he left office in 2008, it should have been clear to anyone who had closely followed his record that Mr. Christie was not the unblemished crusader against corruption that he made himself out to be. But that didn’t stop him from defeating incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, the following year. As governor, he went viral for fighting teachers, vetoed a bill banning gestation crates for pigs; pardoned gun traffickers; flirted with Tea Party extremists; and canceled a Hudson River train tunnel project after lying about its cost.

Even so, conservatives doubted his loyalty. In late October 2012, Hurricane Sandy had just devastated the Jersey Shore, and President Barack Obama went to survey the damage. Governor and president met on the tarmac at the Atlantic City International Airport. The two men shared a brief, friendly greeting but in conservative lore, it was framed as a protracted embrace — a betrayal of his party, then locked in a fierce presidential election to oust Mr. Obama.

As the G.O.P. embarked on its post-2012 “autopsy,” Mr. Christie made his own bipartisan pivot, which culminated in a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge (i.e., Bridgegate). He was ruthless in his criticisms of Mr. Trump in 2015, only to remake himself as a Trump supporter early the following year, during a crucial time in the G.O.P. race. As late as November 2021, almost a year after the Capitol riot, Mr. Christie was still presenting himself as personally close with Trump. “We have been friends for twenty years and still are friends,” he wrote in “Republican Rescue,” the book he published that fall. In another passage, he wrote, “We’ve had great times together, and I have agreed with so many of the policies he pursued and achieved.”

That record of praise for Mr. Trump makes the broadsides Mr. Christie is now delivering on the campaign trail and in the debates (e.g., “Donald Duck”) all the more difficult to believe.

To his supporters, Mr. Trump’s contempt for the Republican establishment is a sign that he is unbought and unbossed. Mr. Christie’s record makes it difficult to convince voters that he is a maverick of similar issue. As one participant in a recent Republican focus group put it, “He has a lot of things from his past.” Even if he can somehow win the New Hampshire primary, those intrinsic flaws will remain.

Mr. Christie’s misfortune may have been to come of age in an unsustainably brutal political culture that rewards venality and dishonesty. Many of the American heroes he cited in his presidential announcement at Saint Anselm — F.D.R., J.F.K., Reagan — were far from perfect. But they felt the demand, the requirement even, to live up to some ideal of public service. Once that ideal vanishes, commercialized and deconstructed into obsolescence, so does the demand. And then only vanity remains.

To put it another way, Mr. Christie is both the benefactor and victim of the opportunities afforded by a society increasingly geared toward self-promotion, hustle and hype, not to mention a casual acceptance of “alternative facts.” In that sense, he is simply a less talented version of Mr. Trump, living out his “emotional truths,” hoping that he can stun the rest of us into what the French philosopher Guy Debord called “passive acceptance.”

When I first set out solve the mystery of Mr. Christie, I asked a number of pollsters and political observers if they thought he had any chance of toppling Mr. Trump. Each one admired his campaign — and predicted its imminent demise. “There is absolutely no interest in a Chris Christie candidacy,” Longwell Partners analyst Gunner Ramer told me. He will never be able to escape the calculating dishonesty that made him such a flawed public official in the first place.

I am glad Mr. Christie is running. I am glad that he is finally telling the truth about Mr. Trump. I just wish he could tell the truth about himself.

Alexander Nazaryan (@alexnazaryan) covers national politics for Yahoo News.

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