Having decided that his path into the field of potential candidates for the Republican presidential nomination runs through Mar-A-Lago and its lord of the manor, former Gov. Chris Christie has embarked on a speaking engagement and interview tour, beating up on his former friend and ex-president Donald Trump as an ego driven loser who, if not stopped, will destroy the party.
With more in the party shedding their fear of crossing the former president and now willing to speak out in opposition and with the big money donors turning away from him, though, sustaining Christie’s strategy over the long term is problematic.
By late spring or early summer of 2023 when the political world’s focus shifts sharply to the presidential election, odds will increase that Trump’s candidacy will flame out spectacularly and he will no longer be a candidate — at the very least, not a viable one whose shadow will cast a pall over the party’s chances of regaining the White House against a vulnerable incumbent.
As long as Trump’s candidacy remains viable, Christie’s crusade will attract media attention and take some of the sting out of his 2016 endorsement, including his pursuit of the vice presidential spot or appointment as U. S. Attorney General.
It is, though, a strategy with a “sell by” date dictated either by Trump’s voluntary withdrawal or a series of primary season defeats that humiliate and marginalize him and chase him out of contention.
With Trump’s departure, Christie will lose his support-me-because-I’m-not-him approach and will, of necessity, be expected to offer a vision and lay out a policy agenda which not only the Republican Party can buy into, but the American people as a whole can do so as well and differentiate him from the competition.
In the early handicapping of the field, Christie has failed to make the cut, overshadowed by Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
While it is a satisfying compliment to be mentioned, polling this far out isn’t particularly meaningful; more a measurement of name recognition than a sober assessment of one’s electoral strength or popularity.
Christie, who plays the “I’m thinking about it” card when asked about a candidacy, is not the only Trump critic, especially since the disappointing showing by Republicans who barely secured a slender majority in the House in the Congressional midterm election despite predictions of a blowout victory — an outcome widely blamed on Trump’s high profile involvement — but he’s been more blunt and direct in taking personal shots at his one-time pal.
As party figures in Congress and out have emerged to urge distancing from Trump and putting an end to his unhinged ranting over his 2020 defeat, Christie has taken aim at the former president’s massive ego — “it’s all about him,” he said.
History demonstrates that nothing enrages Trump more than portraying him as a failure and Christie’s recent description of him as “a loser” was clearly calculated to get under his skin.
Harsh reality may be thrust upon him, however, when his intimidation factor vanishes and when those who in the past wrote seven and eight figure checks have grown tired of the tumult and chaos and continue to look elsewhere.
His hardcore base will remain loyal, but his ability to control the narrative and block out the sun from shining on his competition will have diminished considerably. The collective shrug drawn by the lackluster announcement of his candidacy was an early indication that the spark has dimmed and the excitement dampened.
He will not go easily or quietly, however, echoing his 2016 campaign when he was targeted by the other dozen or so in the field only to overcome all of them to win the nomination and pull off one of modern history’s most stunning upsets by defeating the heavily favored Hillary Clinton.
It is a vastly different environment now; he lost his bid for re-election and his belief his re-entry would clear the field failed to materialize. He sulked and pouted and his obsession with proving he was cheated out of victory in 2020 has driven him toward ever greater outlandish claims of fraud.
The specter of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U. S. Capitol still hangs over his head and his retention of officially classified documents after he left office place him in jeopardy of Federal indictment. Other investigations into his personal and private business dealings are ongoing as well, an even greater threat of criminal charges.
Like the aging vaudevillians who insist on remaining on stage even though their entertainment value has disappeared, Trump’s act has grown thin, wearisome and embarrassing.
One can but speculate about Christie’s end game; whether he’ll enter the competition in the hope of achieving greater success than his long shot 2016 effort which ended after successive losses in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary or if he will become a significant inside influencer charting the party’s direction and eventual choice of nominee.
He will have been out of public office for six years by the start of 2024 and would face the daunting task of building a national campaign infrastructure and fund-raising operation if he is to compete effectively in a multi-candidate primary season.
His desire to become Attorney General remains strong and a Republican elected president in 2024 with Christie’s help could satisfy that desire.
In the meantime, he’ll likely continue his verbal broadsides against Trump because there is simply no reason not to. There is no turning back, no accommodations to be made, no deals to be struck, no cease fires to be negotiated.
The path Christie has chosen through Mar-A-Lago won’t be strewn with roses; rather, it will be littered with the casualties of a no quarter given take no prisoners struggle.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.