Chris Christie and the “First Primary”

Speaking of the 2016 contest, as I guess we must now and then at a site called Political Animal: Esquire‘s Mark Warren offers a threshold for credible presidential candidates that I’d like to challenge a bit:

It is now the Beltway bromide that in presidential politics, money is the first and most important primary. But no, this visceral, instinctual, and quick series of binding judgments that we make about a candidate, almost on sight, is the first primary.

Warren says this by way of suggesting that Martin O’Malley and Chris Christie have the “it factor” of immediate personal appeal–he doesn’t say charisma, but we’re clearly in charisma’s neighborhood–that could make them formidable presidential candidates from the get-go.

Personally, I’d say the “first primary” that culls the candidates from the pretenders is neither money nor “visceral” appeal, but the ability to represent some important constituency in the party, whether it’s among the elites, the interest-and-identity groups, the rank-and-file, or ideally all three. And that’s why when Mitt Romney was struggling to nail down the GOP nomination in 2012, he was fighting Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, not John Thune. Looking and sounding good is always a plus, but not always essential, which explains the old joke about politics being show-business for ugly people.

In any event, I do not share the widespread belief that Christie is the guy to watch in 2016. I don’t doubt his “entertainment value,” as Warren puts it, or the “genuine appeal” of someone who is unabashedly “a colossal asshole.” But all these descriptors also perfectly describe Rudy Giuliani at this point in the 2008 cycle. Rudy ran first in all the early polls. Like Christie, he had been a prosecutor and a very successful public-sector executive. He had some high-profile conservative validators (Rick Perry, Pat Robertson). He dominated every room he was in. Conservatives ate up his liberal-bashing with great big spoons. Then he vanished without a trace the minute primary voting began.

It’s true that Christie doesn’t violate as many ideological litmus tests as Giuliani did, but it’s also true the GOP has developed quite a few more of them than it had in 2008. But more to the point, it’s impossible to count how many 2016 primary voters and caucus participants will have a very hard time ever, ever forgiving Christie for his “endorsement” of Obama via the praise he offered during and after Sandy. You think Rudy had to crawl on his belly to overcome his abortion and gay rights heresies (all for naught)? It’s nothing to what Christie will have to do.

Because that’s such a Sisyphean task, maybe Mark Warren is right that in the end Christie would do as well to stop toadying to the Right and start treating his intraparty critics like he treats public employees, and boost his general election numbers to the point where they have to nominate him. But that will only work if it’s a stark and unavoidable choice between winning and losing. And as we learned during the 2012 general election, conservatives are perfectly capable of overestimating their chances of victory.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.