When Texas Gov. Rick Perry, currently the frontrunner in the Republican presidential nomination contest, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made a pilgrimage in June to a Colorado gathering of wealthy right-wing donors convened by billionaires Charles and David Koch, one man clearly impressed the brothers much more than the other.
Introducing Christie, who delivered the keynote address to the Koch Industries gathering, David Koch gushed. "With his enormous success in reforming New Jersey, some day we might see him on a larger stage where, God knows, he is desperately needed," said Koch, according to secretly recorded audio files of the event obtained by Brad Friedman of the Brad Blog.
Yet Christie, foe of teachers and their unions, had made it plain months before in no uncertain terms: he was not running for president. "[S]hort of suicide, I don't really know what I'd have to do to convince you people that I'm not running," Christie told a group of reporters in February. "I'm not running."
His protestations aside, a new push for a Christie candidacy by a handful of high-flying Republican political donors -- including Koch, the moneybags behind the Tea Party aligned group, Americans for Prosperity, and countless other right-wing organizations and efforts -- has the political world aflutter at the prospect of the pugilistic former prosecutor on the debate stand.
Republican luminaries including Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol have suggested Christie enter the presidential contest, and even Karl Rove has publicly mused on that possibility. Further stoking the speculation, Christie last night delivered at the Reagan Library a speech that sounded for all of the world like the rationale for a Christie presidential candidacy.
Recent stumbles by Texas Gov. Rick Perry on the presidential campaign trail have widened the opening for a late entrant into the race for the GOP presidential nomination, a course that former vice presidential candidate and former Alaska governor, Sarah Palin, is said to be considering. But the money and momentum for an October surprise candidacy these days is on Christie.
Uniting a small group of big-money donors, dubbed the "Draft Christie Committee" by New York Times reporter Nicholas Confessore, are two things: a hatred for labor unions and a desire for a Republican win in November 2012, something they seem unconvinced that either Perry or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney can deliver.
Thank You For Asking; Please Ask Some More
There's little doubt that Christie is reconsidering his earlier decision to stay out of the presidential race. "It's real," former N.J. Gov. Thomas Kean told Robert Costa of the National Review Online. "He's giving it a lot of thought. I think the odds are a lot better now than they were a couple weeks ago." Kean, says Costa, is an "informal adviser" of Christie's. Yesterday, Christie hit the stump on behalf of Republican candidates -- something he does a lot -- in addition to traveling to California to deliver what was billed as major speech in Simi Valley last night.
When, during the question-and-answer session that followed the speech, an audience member asked Christie if he was running for the Republican presidential nomination, the governor first chided the audience for not getting to the subject until the second question,
but refused to say he wasn't running. Instead, he referred his audience to the Politico Web site, where the front page featured a video that strings together clips of his many past denials. (The text under the video reads: "New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has made it clear he won't run in 2012 - a decision he might be reconsidering.")
After two other audience members used their question time to implore him to run, Christie replied he was certain that when Ronald Reagan embarked on the road to the presidency, the man who would become the 40th president "knew in his heart that he was called" to the position. "This is all I'll say about that tonight -- is that I hear exactly what you're saying, and I feel the passion with which you say it, and it touches me," Christie said. He then went on to say that he doesn't at all consider it a burden to be constantly asked if
he will run for president. Christie said, "Anybody that has an ego large enough to say, 'Oh, please -- please, please stop asking me to be leader of the free world -- it's such a burden ... what kind of crazy egomaniac would you have to be to say, 'Stop, stop'?"
Why Chris Christie?
In hypothetical polling face-offs against Barack Obama, Perry and Romney each run about even with the president, despite the latter's lagging approval numbers.
Between Romney and Perry, Romney is seen as the guy with the better chance to win in a general election, simply because of his demeanor and business background. Yet Romney's chances of winning the nomination are not great among a heavily evangelical primary electorate that rejects both the health-care reform program (which he's since claimed as "a mulligan") that Romney signed into law in Massachusetts, and his Mormon faith.
As a Southern Baptist who has publicly ruminated over the possibility of his state seceding from the union because of "Obamacare," Perry is better poised to win the primary, but less likely to win the swing voters that will be needed to take the White House in 2012. And even among those primary voters, Perry has some ideological problems because of his provision of state-subsidized higher education to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, and his implementation of a mandatory vaccination program (since halted) for school age girls to prevent infection by a sexually-transmitted disease.
Romney's creation of Massachusetts' health-care reform program, with its mandated coverage, likely rankles the big-money types far more than Perry's provision of in-state tuition to the children of undocumented immigrants. To big-money players such as the Kochs, Home Depot founder Steve Lagone, and the roster of hedge-fund honchos and financiers chomping at the prospect of a Christie run, antipathy to immigrants is not a primary issue. (It's simply useful as a means for rallying angry white people to the polls to vote for an anti-labor and anti-regulatory agenda.)
But neither man has done the one thing that truly excites David Koch and his fellow deep-pocketed Christie fans: take on the public sector unions in a big way.
With a talent for bluster, Christie blew into office in 2009 on a narrow victory, and set about to right New Jersey's budget woes on the backs of public employees -- cutting the state's funding for municipal public safety costs and its contribution to local education budgets, while instituting a cap on the property taxes imposed by municipalities. He suggested that municipalities opt out of the civil service system altogether. And he demanded a rollback of an unfunded increase in the pension payouts to retired state employees, as well as a raise in the retirement age.
He's best known, however, for his battle with the teachers' unions, and the hand badly played by local labor leaders who never expected the governor to take the battle to YouTube, in videos of combative town hall meetings, in suburbs that lay beyond the state capital
of Trenton, in which teachers were made to look unreasonably demanding in an economy that was spiraling downward.
Christie's cuts ultimately resulted in the layoffs of some 10,000 teachers in the nation's most densely populated state. But Christie's bullying manner against the teachers and their unions played brilliantly to the rage felt by middle-class whites who felt they were getting a raw deal in a bad economy, when compared with public-sector workers.
As the New York Times' Peter Applebome described it: [W]hat's most telling about the jousting between the powerful teachers' union with 200,000 members and the Colossus of Trenton is how much it is emblematic of this moment in state and local governance, like the figurehead on a giant sailing ship.
In short, Chris Christie set the stage for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's assault on public-sector unions, as well as those launched by Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder -- all efforts backed by Americans for Prosperity.
And that's really where the draft-Christie strategy comes together: marshaling middle-class rage in the service of David Koch's anti-labor, anti-regulatory agenda.
Christie kicked off his speech with his favorite Ronald Reagan story, as he called it: the story of the 1981 of the firing of the air traffic controllers who went on strike, despite a prohibition against strikes by federal workers -- a rule that had never been fully enforced.
"President Reagan ordered them back to work," Christie said, "making it clear that those who refused would be fired. Thousands refused, and thousands were fired." The audience applauded. Reagan's handling of the air traffic controllers' strike led to the decertification of the the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, and changed the power dynamic between labor and management across all sectors of the workforce.
In his telling of the story of the PATCO strike, Christie seemed to be trying to inoculate himself against the criticism he would likely encounter on the presidential campaign trail, should he choose to travel it, for his lack of foreign policy experience. Reagan's firing of the air traffic controllers sent a message to world leaders, Christie said, that Reagan couldn't be messed with. "The Reagan who challenged Soviet aggression, who attacked a Libya that supported terror, was the same Reagan who stood up years before to PATCO at home for what he believed was right," Christie said. "All this does and should have meaning for us today."
In one fell swoop, Christie compared a labor union representing federal workers to the Evil Empire and a terrorist state. And in citing Reagan's firing of the air traffic controllers, Christie surely meant an implicit comparison to the layoffs of thousands of New Jersey teachers whose school districts failed to implement the contract changes demanded by Christie.
Not a Perfect Tea Party Candidate
While his anti-labor bona fides may impress the average right-winger in search of red meat, glance at Christie's record for more than a few minutes, and you'll find a less-than-perfect candidate for the Tea Party crowd, which nonetheless seems to like him.
On immigration, he's been, in the past, to the left of Rick Perry, and has said that being in the United States illegally is not a crime, but an administrative matter. Christie has also endorsed "a path to citizenship" for those who are here without documents. At last night's Reagan Library speech, however, Christie staked out a position on education of undocumented immigrants that was in direct response to one that has Perry in trouble with his right-wing base: access to the state university system at in-state tuition rates to the children of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. when they were children. To do anything less, Perry said in a recent debate, would be "heartless."
"I want every child who comes to New Jersey to be educated," Christie told his California audience. "But I do not believe that for those people who came here illegally, that we should be subsidizing, with taxpayer money through in-state tuition, their education. And let me be very clear, from my perspective, that is not a heartless position; that is a common-sense position." The crowd offered a sustained round of applause.
Unlike Perry, Christie accepts the scientific consensus on climate change: that it is greatly exacerbated by human activity, such as the use of fossil fuels. This is heresy to Tea Partiers; indeed Charles and David Koch are major funders of a veritable climate-change-denial industry. Still, Christie's acceptance of science didn't stop him from pulling New Jersey out of a regional carbon-trading agreement known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, four months after meeting with David Koch in New York.
"[W]e met in my New York City office and spoke - just the two of us - for about two hours on his objectives and successes in correcting many of the most serious problems of the New Jersey state government," Koch told those attending his Colorado seminar in his introduction of Christie. "At the end of our conversation, I said to myself, 'I'm really impressed and inspired by this man. He is my kind of guy.'" In his remarks about Christie at the Koch Industries Colorado gathering, Koch lauded the New Jersey governor for his decision to abandon RGGI.
Addressing the millionaires and billionaires assembled by the Koch brothers in Colorado to solicit their pledge to their economic neo-libertarian cause, Chris Christie sounded like a man converted. "Free market" ideas had never before been his stock and trade, but he added them to his lexicon for the benefit of his potential benefactors.
"If you want the free enterprise system to thrive and grow and be available to everybody, then the first thing you have to do is clean out the dysfunctional governments around America," Christie said. "That's the first thing you need to do. Because dysfunctional governments are like the wet blanket on top of free enterprise and opportunity. Because all they do is layer regulation and taxes and burdens on all those people who just wanted opportunities to use their God-given gifts and their ambition and their vision to try to improve their lives and through that, improve the lives of other people."
People, one assumes, like David Koch.
This piece was first published at Alternet.