If — as campaign consultants and strategists are fond of advising their clients — success lies in locating a parade and getting in front of it, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie is auditioning for the role of grand marshal leading the Republican Party line of march out of the dark Kingdom of Trump and into the sunlit land of hope, opportunity and election night victory celebrations.
While hand-wringing Republican establishment figures grumble and grouse in private to one another and others tread lightly in discussing the ex-president, fearful of arousing his wrath and that of his dedicated followers, Christie has stepped up to the table to gamble his place in the party on his belief that it is time to close the cover on the Book of Donald and move on.
From his perch as a contributor on ABC News and, more recently, in speeches to party audiences and donors, Christie has made clear that it is time to cease clinging to the myth that the 2020 presidential election was rife with fraud and that Trump was cheated out of re-election by massive illegal behavior in a number of states.
Addressing the Republican Jewish Coalition recently, Christie declared that no matter where anyone stood on the presidential contest, “it is over” and, for the good of the party, it is imperative to look forward.
Trump’s great obsession, of course, is his insistence that his defeat at the hands of Joe Biden was engineered by sinister forces that short counted his votes, changed his votes to Biden, disregarded legitimately cast ballots and recorded votes from ineligible individuals.
More than 60 court challenges, recounts and audits later, none of his allegations stood up to scrutiny. Litigation was routinely and quickly dismissed by judges who chastised Trump’s legal team for bringing flimsy and unsupported evidence to court.
Christie did not utter Trump’s name in his speech — the media did that for him — but seasoned pol that he is, knew the candidate to whom he gave full-throated support four years ago, would respond in a fury to any suggestion his accusations of fraud and illegal activity was pointless and damaging to the Republican party.
Trump didn’t disappoint, declaring that Christie had been “massacred” over his time to move on comments, despite news accounts that the remarks drew applause from his audience.
As is his custom, Trump couldn’t resist taking a personal shot, claiming that Christie had left office in 2018 “with a record low nine percent approval rating” and, as a result, lacked any credibility. (It was actually 15 percent but quibbling over a Trump exaggeration is a fruitless exercise.)
Christie’s always been willing to engage in nose to nose verbal combat and wasted no time in gleefully needling Trump: “When I ran for re-election in 2013, I got 60 percent of the vote. When he ran, he lost to Joe Biden.”
Christie has teased his potential pursuit of the presidential nomination with the traditional “never say never” coyness while Trump has stopped inches short of a declaration of candidacy. Riveting television awaits should these two share the debate stage in 2024.
Christie’s relationship with Trump is a complicated and turbulent one. He sought the 2016 nomination even though his odds of success were exceedingly long and was the first of the contenders to endorse Trump after the New Hampshire primary. He campaigned with Trump, was chosen as head of the transition team after Trump’s victory but was summarily and humiliatingly dumped within weeks.
His early hopes for second place on the ticket never materialized and, despite his desire to win appointment as Attorney General, he fell out of the Trump orbit and into private life.
He joined the constantly growing roster of Trump’s former friends and associates, individuals once relied upon for advice and counsel but who were banished after running afoul of the mercurial businessman cum political force.
Following Trump’s re-election defeat and his futile attempts to overturn the results, Christie urged the effort be abandoned, at one point calling the Trump legal team “a national embarrassment.”
By raising his profile as a critic of Trump’s election fraud allegations, Christie has, in effect, warned that remaining in the former president’s thrall and standing by as he re-emerged as the 2024 nominee will doom Republican chances.
Should Biden recover sufficiently from the stream of stumbles and missteps of his first year but decide to step down after one term — a genuine possibility — and deliver the nomination to Vice President Kamala Harris, odds of a Republican successor would be greatly enhanced.
Harris’ performance so far has been undistinguished and Republicans are convinced she would be an eminently beatable candidate. Unless, that is, Trump seizes the Republican nomination and spends the campaign insisting he was cheated of his earlier victory.
The Republican establishment recognizes that disastrous reality, but Christie’s is one of the very few voices raised in pointing it out.
His own ambition is at play as well, joining what is developing as a crowded field of contenders encouraged by a Democratic Party weakened by serious ideological divisions and led by a president whose public standing has tanked over mishandling issues from an inflation-besieged economic climate to an out of control crisis of illegal immigration at the southern border.
Comparisons to the Jimmy Carter presidency have cropped up along with suggestions that the nation is suffering from buyer’s remorse, a sense that voters made a horrible mistake in selecting a national leader.
This national mood was captured and manifested itself in the election of Republican Glenn Youngkin as governor of Virginia whose victory was attributed in significant measure to his campaign’s successful strategy in keeping Trump at arms’ length.
Youngkin may have provided the template for Republican candidates to follow — don’t run against Trump, run without him — while Christie has gone a step further urging what amounts to a clean break from a Trump dominated party.
Trump, of course, will continue to be Trump, attacking without hesitation anyone who breaks with his election fraud narrative while endorsing challenges to incumbent Republicans in Congress, financing campaigns, selecting candidates and seizing credit for victories, deservedly or not.
Denied the White House as his stage, Trump’s reach may be diminished and his behavior grow wearisome over time, aiding those who share Christie’s outlook.
Christie has located the parade the strategists and consultants speak of fondly. His task now is to continue to lead it and hope a blaring brass section can drown out the bass drum being thumped by Trump bringing up the rear.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.