Christie can’t win New Jersey. Does that matter?

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Matt Bai
·National Political Columnist
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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, newly declared as a Republican presidential candidate, at a town hall meeting in Sandown, N.H., on Tuesday. (Photo: Charles Krupa/AP)

Here’s the bad news for Chris Christie: He embarks on a presidential campaign with hardly any support among primary voters. He might not even make it onstage for the first debate, because unlike four years ago, when conservative donors were begging Christie to offer himself up as not Mitt Romney, there are at least 15 other Republicans vying for position.

But here’s the good news for Christie, if you want to be glass-half-full about it: At least he’s not running for reelection as governor. Because with a 30 percent approval rating in New Jersey, Christie is now less popular in his home state than his predecessor, Jon Corzine, whom he beat pretty much by just showing up and having a pulse. If Christie takes a liking to bucolic New Hampshire, he might consider moving there.

Of course, much has been made already this week of Christie’s plummeting fortunes in New Jersey. The question is why, and whether it really matters.

After all, Christie is hardly the only guy in the race who could use a change of scenery. There are four sitting Republican governors (along with three who served previously) now running or on the verge of announcing a presidential bid.

And of the four current governors, three of them — Christie, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal — would almost certainly be sent packing if they ran for reelection tomorrow. (The fourth, John Kasich, is riding high in Ohio, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)

This is something new in presidential politics; it’s as if your boss gave you a terrible job review, and you responded by asking the company’s shareholders for a promotion. And it tells us something not just about these governors but also about the process right now, especially inside the Republican Party.

Starting, perhaps, with Watergate, governors have wielded a significant advantage in presidential primaries and general elections. There have been 10 elections between 1976 and now; seven of them were won by current or former governors, and in all but one there was at least one nominee who once held the title. In contrast, before 1976, you would have had to go back 20 years to find a governor atop either ticket, and all the way back to 1932 to find a sitting governor who actually won.

This shift wasn’t coincidental. After Vietnam and Watergate, Washington gradually came to be seen as a symbol of deceit and dysfunction, ruled by politicians who cared more about keeping their parties in power than about reforming the system.

Governors, on the other hand, were outsiders and problem solvers, and for the most part they presented themselves as pragmatists. (Ronald Reagan is the notable exception here, as he is in many things.) Bill Clinton called himself a “New Democrat,” George W. Bush a “compassionate conservative.”

But really since the advent of the new, digital culture and its corresponding decline in institutional loyalties, party primaries generally have become more about the shouting than the doing, more about decrying pragmatism than championing it. You can’t even hope to compete if you can’t get one of a handful of wealthy, extremist ideologues to look in your direction.

And this creates an almost irreconcilable tension for anyone who actually wants to govern responsibly and run for president at the same time.

Despite his reputation for blustering, Christie actually governed in his first term as a guy who got sensible things done. He worked with a minority of powerful Democrats to reform the state’s pension system and hold down property taxes. Hardly any Democrat in an overwhelmingly Democratic state wanted to run against him in 2013, when he won reelection with an impressive 60 percent of the vote.

It wasn’t just the Fort Lee bridge idiocy that cost Christie much of that cross-party support in the months after. It was also that suddenly Christie was eyeing a presidential bid, and this meant he had to at least make himself palatable to the kind of primary voters who now take their direction from radio hosts, tea party activists and a handful of elected officials who exist mostly to stir up paranoid fantasies of tyranny.

And so even as the bridge scandal was destroying his hard-won alliances in New Jersey, and even as Christie spent more time out of the state, he refused to rebuff the people who saw immunizations as a government conspiracy. He renounced Common Core and stood firm against gay marriage. It must have seemed to a lot of voters in New Jersey that Christie was only a “truth teller” when he wasn’t directing his rhetoric at voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.

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At least Christie can say he’s had to deal with a mostly Democratic electorate and a Democratic legislature, which would probably make it all but impossible to govern harmoniously while running for president, in any event. Walker doesn’t have that excuse.

After spending most of his governorship attacking every union and cutting every tax he could find, while surviving a recall election and endearing himself to the Koch brothers, Walker leads a Republican-controlled state that’s basically a mess. The middle class in Wisconsin is apparently shrinking faster than in any other state, and the projected revenues from his supply-side program have yet to materialize. (Shock.)

And then there’s Jindal, who has transformed himself from a technocratic boy wonder into as reliable an indicator as exists of wherever the social conservatives in his party are on any given issue. His most recent budget had to cover a $1.6 billion crater. Judging from polls, Louisianans would sell the state back to France if they thought they could unload Jindal in the deal.

All of which leads me back to Kasich, whose experience in Ohio has been different and perhaps instructive. Unlike the other three current governors in the race, Kasich suffered a cataclysmic defeat early in his governorship, when his effort to roll back collective bargaining rights for public employee unions went down to resounding defeat at the ballot box. His popularity plummeted.

What Kasich did then, however, was to focus maniacally on job creation and the economy, while putting aside just about everything else, including most of the fights that thrill conservative activists. And whether he deserves the credit or not (a question I explored here in some depth), Kasich has presided over a demonstrable resurgence; Ohio’s falling unemployment and rising incomes have consistently outpaced the national recovery.

Reelected with 64 percent of the vote last year, Kasich now owns an approval rating above 60 percent in Ohio — which, if you haven’t heard, is kind of an important state in both primaries and presidential elections.

Does this mean that Kasich, who barely registers in polls at the moment, is ultimately a more viable candidate in the primaries than Christie or Walker or Jindal? Not necessarily. Conservative voters are so distrustful of government at this point that you can probably convince them that your low approval ratings are evidence of your making hard choices, like cutting everybody’s taxes. Or whatever.

And as I’ve written before, I still think the commentators who like to treat campaigns as fantasy baseball too readily dismiss Christie’s skills as a candidate.

But when you’ve made yourself a divisive figure at home in hopes of uniting Republicans hundreds or thousands of miles away, it’s hard to be taken seriously as the kind of governor who can win a general election, like Clinton or Bush.

Christie likes to say that his mother taught him a valuable lesson — that it’s better to be respected than loved, because love without respect never lasts anyway. Right about now, I’m guessing he’d take either one.



(Cover tile photo: Matt Rourke/AP)