When Gov. Chris Christie leaves office on January 16, he’ll have accomplished a lot in his short administration: protecting consumer rights, carrying out a three-way agreement to dismantle the horse racing industry, ending the football and basketball seasons early, and denying birth certificates to gay couples who want them. But he’ll also go down as the leader who failed to do more to help Republicans win back Congress and the White House, let alone build up the infrastructure that is needed to win elections and put people into Congress. (All that before he leaves office to enter the private sector, of course.)
But on Friday, he gave a half-hearted farewell speech at the New Jersey Republican State Committee retreat, dismissing the notion that his candidacy for president in 2016 — which ended in abject humiliation after he lost the primary by 16 points in a crowded field — killed off the party’s prospects for regaining power in the future.
“This Party has been better off for it,” Christie said of the long shadow of his presidency. “Because having the perspective of going through this has left me really looking across the board at both the challenges and the opportunities to make sure that when we come to the next race it will be a lot more fun.”
He made the case for his endorsement to a room of state committee members who might be receptive to a Cabinet post — he’s being mentioned as a possible secretary of state. The small room was scattered with mayors, education commissioners, and other advisers, but not several potential 2020 presidential hopefuls, including Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
“My son said to me the other day, ‘Dad, it would be so cool to be governor of New Jersey,’” he said. “You never know … I could easily get elected to Congress. I could easily be President. This would be such a cool job. But as I got up and walked away, I said, ‘The opportunity is not as great as if we took down the mansion.’”
Democrats currently control the governor’s office in both New Jersey and New York, and they might well keep it in the future. So the loss of the White House will certainly take a toll on the Republican Party. But the party’s predicament now is significantly different from that that Christie faced when he went into the 2016 campaign with rising popularity — and obviously wanted to be a figurehead for the Republican Party.
“Christie became really good at re-telling old, lame lies about how Republicans had won since the Nixon years,” Stephen Lonegan, a former Republican candidate for governor who is considered a Trump detractor in the New Jersey legislature, told me in an interview on Friday. “But the ugly reality is that Republicans have lost the White House five times in a row, each time for leadership’s ability to fight. That leadership said when he was running that he doesn’t like fighting and he lost sight of why he was running.”
His successor, Gov. Phil Murphy, is proving far more skilled at winning voter support, in no small part thanks to his unvarnished honesty about his own failings. Not every Republican candidate can replicate that with an eye on the White House.