The American Prospect's Paul Waldman thinks we're about to experience nothing more than a "brief explosion of Christie Mania," while, over at The Washington Post, Jonathan Bernstein tells us that it doesn't matter whether Christie has a powerful personality, because that's not what decides presidential elections.
They're both missing the point.
... when Chris Christie wins that race easily, as he will, we'll be treated to a brief but overwhelming deluge of stories about Christie's 2016 presidential candidacy. He certainly sounds like he's ready to start running, and it's safe to say the press corps would love it if he did.But the Republican Party is full of people who aren't dullards and "walking haircuts" -- and yet don't I see Chuck Todd or the Morning Joe crew slavering at the prospect of a Steve King presidential bid, or another run by Michele Bachmann. The guys in the press corps -- and I'm thinking almost exclusively of the guys -- don't just want candidates to be interesting, they want them to be interesting in a way that appeals to them.
That isn't because they have any particular strong feelings about his politics. It's because he's great copy. You think it'd be fun taking a few months of your life to follow Bobby Jindal around Iowa while he plasters on a fake smile and tries to look interested in what farmers have to say? God, no. But with Christie, you never know what he's going to do. He might swear. He might snap at a schoolteacher (he has a particular contempt for teachers). He might call one of his political opponents "numbnuts."
All of which is great fun for journalists used to covering the usual walking haircuts who calculate every word that comes out of their mouths to offend the fewest number of people.
When we talk about Christie, we usually end up talking about his personality. So it's worth a quick refresher on the importance of candidates in presidential elections.Do you agree with this? Do you think Bill Clinton also would have gotten into a photo finish with George W. Bush in 2000 if he could have run for a third term? I don't, and I think personality has a lot to do with that.
The short version? Candidates matter a lot in nomination politics; they matter hardly at all in presidential general elections.
The slightly longer version: In general elections, votes are driven mainly by party, and secondarily by voters' retrospective evaluation of the incumbent party. Everything else: candidate, campaign, specific issues outside of the party context ... it's sloppy to say that they "don't matter," but the truth is that they matter only on the margins.
But I disagree with the first assertion in what I've quoted from Bernstein. I don't agree that "when we talk about Christie, we usually end up talking about his personality." That's certainly not true of Bernstein's fellow pundits.
When they talk about Christie, they talk about a combination of things: his personality, his (real or imagined) conduct in office, his (real or imagined) political positions. They talk about how all these things add up to -- as far as they're concerned -- a tasty, perfectly blended, highly intoxicating political cocktail. And it's all interrelated: Christie cares about stuff a lot! That's why he hugs! That's why he yells! That's why he gets his agenda through a Democratic state legislature! That's why he says nasty things about how business is done in D.C.! That's why he could heal American politics!
Sorry, I just turned into a starburst-seeing mainstream pundit for a second there.
But that's the point. Christie isn't just a guy with a big personality. He's a guy who's very, very good at building a myth of himself, using that big personality, among other things. He's got the voters of his state buying the myth. He has Washington and New York journalists eating out of his hand because they buy the myth.
He still has to get past the insane voters in his party. I think he's going to lose the nomination if he doesn't tack very far to the right, and he may stop making insider journos feel a tingle up their legs if he tacks as far right as he'll need to -- that's what happened to an earlier press-corps crush, John McCain.
But if he can thread the needle somehow, he's going to be dangerous, because he's not just building a collection of YouTube clips -- he's building a narrative. And so far, it's the book the press corps wants read to it every night before bed.