In December 2013, Chris Christie dominated the field in the just-forming race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. With a rating of 20 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of polls, the New Jersey governor was well ahead of Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz — everybody.
Now, Christie sits at 4.8 percent in the average, a bit better than Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal, but behind all the other candidates he once led.
After months of sliding down the polls — a descent hastened by fallout from the George Washington Bridge scandal, lackluster economic progress in New Jersey and his own decision to hold back on campaigning — Christie is moving again. He was well received at a Republican presidential cattle call in New Hampshire last weekend, has delivered an attention-getting speech on entitlement reform, is planning to roll out a broad set of policy positions and remains confident he can connect with voters in a way that few, if any, other candidates can.
On Tuesday, Christie, who has not yet officially become a candidate, was at the State Department in Washington, speaking at an event designed to showcase him as a responsible, policy-oriented governor. Appearing in an interview format before the Washington Conference on the Americas, Christie spoke at some length on New Jersey trade policy with Mexico and Canada. It was earnest and serious, with no headlines made.
After the conference, Christie agreed to sit down for a few minutes to talk about the coming campaign and his (as yet unofficial) role in it. We began with his place in the polls today versus his peak back in December 2013.
"December of 2013 was after I had just spent $11 million advertising in the largest media market in the country and had just gotten 61 percent of the vote for re-election," Christie said. "So a lot of things happen in between that affect those numbers."
More on that "lot of things" later. Now that Christie is at 4.8 percent, though, what is his theory of the race from now on? How does he get from where he is now back to the top?
"In the end, the theory is if you run, I've always believed that the folks who have the best ideas and are the most talented communicators are the people who win," Christie said. Noting his work campaigning for Republican gubernatorial candidates in 2014, he discovered a pretty simple fact: good candidates win, and bad candidates don't. In this presidential race, though, he believes it's too early to know which is which. "The theory of the race is, the voters will decide based upon who performs when the lights go on," Christie explained. "And the lights have barely turned on yet."
Yes, it is still early. But other Republican candidates are far ahead of Christie in campaigning, organizing, fundraising — everything. Some valued allies have abandoned ship. Hasn't Christie hurt himself by letting January, February and March go by without much progress? Christie says no; he argues that at the moment many candidates are simply trying to make themselves known, and he doesn't have that problem.
"I don't suffer from a lack of notoriety or people knowing who I am," Christie said. "In the end, I think people are paying attention, but I don't think they're deciding." There's an emotional component to voting, Christie believes, and the voter-candidate connection at the core of the process is made later in the race rather than earlier. "Politics and voting, especially for executive offices like governor or president, are made by people based upon who they believe they can trust, who they connect with," Christie explained. "And it's much too early for them to have made that decision."
Throughout the interview, Christie observed the legal nicety of conditioning his comments on whether he chooses to run. But he's clearly far along in putting together a policy platform, which he has now begun to unveil with the speech on entitlements. Looking forward to what could be the most fundamental issue of the campaign, what would Christie do for the millions of Americans who have seen their standard of living go down, not just in the Obama years but going back decades?
"First off, we have an opportunity inequality problem now," Christie said. (He said it in a way that "opportunity inequality" seems likely to be a staple of a Christie economic program.) "In the Obama years, I think you've had no attention paid to the things that create economic growth, like a flatter, simpler tax system. We're not investing in the things that help to grow the economy either, not just in tax cuts but in research and development and other issues that the government has played a role in over time to help to spur private sector economic growth. We haven't been doing any of that."
"That's why I gave a speech on entitlements," Christie continued, "because when 71 percent of federal spending surrounds those issues, you cannot be able to deal with all the other issues that we have to deal with to help the economy grow."
But is entitlement reform really the most direct way to help Americans who have seen their income go down, even during a purported "recovery"? Suffering from deep economic anxieties, are they going to respond positively to a proposal to raise the retirement age and means-test Social Security? Why did Christie roll out his entitlement plan first?
"It's just one of the ways [to help]," Christie said. "It's the first speech."
But he chose to do it first. Why?
"Because it's 71 percent of federal spending," Christie answered. "You have no business talking about the other 29 percent if you're not going to address the 71 percent in detail. The fact is that it is eating away the tax base of this country. And that, combined with anemic economic growth, is a deadly combination. So I made the decision to deal with it first because I believe if you don't address that issue, it will eat you alive."
Some Republicans who have advised Christie and support his entitlement plan believe he has to offer more ideas soon, lest he send the message that government austerity is his solution to the middle-class squeeze. And indeed Christie was quick to promise more on the way.
"It's not the only thing," he said of entitlement reform. "We're going to be giving a speech on tax and economic policy. We're going to be giving a speech on national energy policy. All of which, I think, if done correctly, contribute to dealing with this anxiety you're talking about."
Christie was on Mitt Romney's short list of possible vice presidential candidates in 2012. Romney's rhetoric famously focused on entrepreneurs when the vast majority of Americans don't work for themselves and depend on others for a paycheck. Was Christie uncomfortable with that?
"I wasn't uncomfortable with it, but I think it's limiting," Christie said. "It's limiting. Listen, I love wealthy people and entrepreneurs as much as the next guy, but we don't need to protect them. They're doing pretty well. What we need to do is to understand how we make the economy work for folks who are in the lower middle class and middle class. Not everyone wants to own their own business and operate it. Some people just want a really solid, good-paying career that helps them support their families and help their children reach their aspirations. And that's why I talk about an opportunity inequality problem. That opportunity is missing for folks, and we need to address that, and I think we can address it in a number of different ways."
There have been reports that Christie's team hopes to regain some of the spotlight with big attention-grabbing proposals. Some called the entitlements speech a Hail Mary pass, suggesting it is Christie's desperate strategy to get back in the game. While Christie didn't seem desperate, he did seem encouraged and invigorated by the attention and criticism his proposal received, especially from Hillary Clinton. "What you've seen me do is spurring debate," he said.
Christie hopes to do more of that with a series of policy rollouts. "I'm going to lay out very specific ideas on these different areas that I think are very important," he said. "National defense and intelligence, national energy policy, tax and economic policy, and entitlements. That's where we start." The next big speech will be the tax and economic policy piece, due early next month.
So Christie is ready to go. But remember that he mentioned the "lot of things" that had happened to bring his poll numbers down since that December 2013 peak. Chief among them, of course, was the bridge affair, in which Christie was pounded day after day, week after week, by multiple investigations and nonstop negative press coverage.
On April 8, the New York Times reported that, "It has been falsely predicted many times in the last year, but now it seems to be true: The federal investigation into the lane closings at the George Washington Bridge appears to be coming to a head, with an announcement of indictments as early as next week." That turned out to be yet another off-the-mark prediction; the indictments did not come in the next week. But the possibility still hangs over Christie and his allies and former aides, just as it has for months now. Is he confident he is in the clear?
"I'm fully confident because there's been an internal investigation, there's been a very partisan Democratic legislative investigation, and now 15 months of a U.S. attorney's investigation," Christie said, "and there has not been one fact that's been put forward that contradicts anything I said on Jan. 9 of 2014, the day after all this became public."
"I know myself, and I know what I knew and what I didn't know," Christie, a former U.S. attorney himself, continued. "I'm accountable for this. I'm the accountable officer of the government. And what matters more, and I think what people ultimately judge me on is, how did I react? I terminated the people that I thought were responsible. I opened up the administration completely to investigations, both internally and externally. And then I stood there for an hour and fifty minutes — five-oh — and took every question that every reporter had the day after this happened. And nothing has come out that has contradicted anything I said that day and since that time. So I am confident in who I am and how I reacted to the situation. I wish it had never happened, but I don't get to wish that stuff away. And when you have a government of 60,000 people, there are going to be things that happen sometimes. What matters more as a leader is how do you respond to it, and have you told the truth. And no one has said that I didn't — not even the partisan Democrats in the legislature concluded in their report that they had any evidence that what I had said was untrue. So I think that's what it really comes down to."
There was a time not too long ago when some significant members of the Republican Establishment had come close to choosing Christie as their guy for 2016. The bridge scandal put an end to that. While taking blame for the fact that it happened on his watch, Christie finished his talk on the bridge by suggesting his enemies overplayed it as a way to knock down a high-flying Republican star.
Much of the blowup, Christie said, "has been more of a creation of folks who have an agenda — especially when you reference where my numbers were in December of 2013 — that I got 61 percent of the vote for re-election in a blue state, 51 percent of the Hispanic vote, 22 percent of the African-American vote, and 56 percent of the female vote against a female candidate. I think there were a lot of people with an agenda there to make sure that I didn't gain any more altitude. And a lot of the intensity of the coverage and the length of the coverage, I think, did not necessarily go in line with the facts in the case that were even known back then, let alone what's known now."
Back before the bridge matter, there was a reason Republican voters liked what they saw in Christie. He's natural and appealing and can win over an audience as well as anyone in the GOP. Now, through his own mistakes combined with some matters beyond his control, he finds himself all but counted out for 2016. But he's still Chris Christie. The question — a huge question — is whether he can combine his natural appeal with a solid set of policy proposals and then run a campaign that reminds voters why they liked him in the first place. He's clearly going to try.