If Phil Murphy isn’t presidential material, could he lobby a future Democratic administration to be Secretary of State? The notion may not be at all unrealistic.
New Jersey former governor Chris Christie has embarked on his second bid for the presidency. His first bid, as is well-known, fizzled fast. Failing to gain much traction, the former Trump-critic pivoted to become one of Trump’s strongest early supporters. An almost Vice Presidential candidate, Christie, known as a bombastic shoot-from-the-hip Republican, oversaw Trump’s transition team. Any hopes of a White House office, however, were eliminated when he was passed over for the more pliant Indiana governor, Mike Pence. Trump was not going to share the spotlight with anyone. A man like Christie had served his purpose. The perpetually kow-towing Pence’s complete lack of presence ensured that he was one of the few Cabinet-level figures not to be fired and replaced during the tempestuous administration. His great crime, of course, was in upholding the Constitution and performing his ceremonial duty in certifying the 2020 presidential election.
Christie, now running for the GOP nomination a second time, has been the most outspoken and consistent critic of Trump during the primary race. But both he and Pence—likewise seeking the nomination against his former boss—have been polling low among Republican voters. FiveThirtyEight polls show that Trump remains the clear Republican lead at 57% while Pence is polling at 4.6% and Christie at 3.2%.
Governor Phil Murphy, Christie’s successor, has long been suspected of harboring ambitions for Washington DC. While it is unfathomable that he would seek to challenge incumbent President Joe Biden for the 2024 nomination, Murphy, at age 66, is in good physical health and has built a national network, having served as the chairman of the National Governors Association, for a possible bid in 2028. Murphy has characterized himself as a liberal-progressive champion during his first term as governor (although a number of environmentalists assert that Murphy’s focus on social justice matters has led people to assume, incorrectly, that his policies on environment are “progressive” as well). Since entering his second term, Murphy has pivoted to the center. No more talk of a “sanctuary state”—the self-described “cold-blooded capitalist” Murphy has emerged from the worst of the COVID-era challenges as a new-found pragmatist, having come within a breath of losing to Jack Ciattarelli, despite overseeing the biggest state budgets in the state’s history.
New Jersey governors just do not seem to appeal to the broader American base. There has not been a New Jerseyan president since Caldwell-born Grover Cleveland served from 1885-1889 and again from 1893-1897. Cleveland, however, built up his political resume in New York, not New Jersey, serving as mayor of Buffalo and setting up shop in Albany as governor. President Woodrow Wilson, a Virginian, had a rare, meteoric political ascent in the Garden State. The bookish, internationalist eugenicist served as president of Princeton University until becoming governor of New Jersey. The single-term governor then faced incumbent Republican President Taft for the GOP, former president Teddy Roosevelt running on his own Bull Moose Party, and Eugene V. Debs for the Socialist Party in the 1912 presidential election. Wilson won the election, taking states from across all regions of the United States, although Roosevelt notably captured Pennsylvania, the Great Lakes region, and most of California’s electors.
Politically, this was a different universe. It is hard to imagine any candidate carrying Mississippi as well as Massachusetts in the 21st Century as Wilson did in 1912.
If Phil Murphy is comparable to California Governor Gavin Newsom, another potential Democratic presidential candidate for the future, he can reliably be certain the red carpet won’t be rolled out for him in Texas or Florida. The Sunshine State has represented a battleground for Murphy with national messaging already. Murphy has jabbed at Governor Ron DeSantis on multiple occasions, from the handling of the COVID pandemic, to LGBT policies, to education policies, and the great, ambiguous specter of “woke” culture. New Jersey itself, ironically, has not been at all harmful to DeSantis’ ascent. Although droves of New Jerseyans and New Yorkers have relocated to Florida, the political landscape of Florida—a former swing-state that New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani hinged all his bets on in the 2008 presidential Republican primary—has grown redder, not bluer.
Murphy had served as US Ambassador to Germany during the Obama administration and has maintained close links to international business and political entities, most notably promoting strong ties with India and Ireland to New Jersey. On a personal level, he has his own ties to Italy in the form of a villa in Umbria and taken holidays in Central America and Africa. Now the governor has wrapped up the Japan-leg of his Choose New Jersey East Asia economic mission, landing in South Korea to promote bilateral job-growth creation initiatives with PSEG CEO Ralph LaRossa at his side.
Before and during his term in office as governor, Murphy has trekked across the world, either representing the United States, officially, as ambassador to Europe’s largest economy, or for the state’s interests. While a governor is constitutionally barred from crafting foreign policy of any kind, he can still network—and network he has. Since Murphy cannot run for a third term, and few people expect Murphy to vanish from the political scene completely, it should not come as a surprise to anyone if Murphy’s name comes up as a potential Secretary of State for a future Democratic administration. As it presently stands, Antony Blinken appears to have a strong position within the Biden administration, with the challenges of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a restless China, and now the Israel-Hamas War putting his name in the American consciousness in a way that would not ordinarily happen in less tumultuous times. Blinken’s star is shining, and unless some unforeseen event should precipitate his departure, it is unlikely that Murphy will replace him should Biden be re-elected in 2024.
But if Blinken should blink out, Murphy stands ready as a solid Democrat option with enough travel time abroad to fill the role. Should he rule out a potential run for president himself—which would be a long-shot (ask Chris Christie)—at the age of 70 in 2028, Murphy could realistically see himself as a plausible choice to continue his jet-setting for Uncle Sam.