“When people are feeling insecure,” Bill Clinton famously said, “they’d rather have someone who is strong and wrong rather than somebody who is weak and right.” Clinton wasn’t talking specifically about today’s Republican primary voters, but the lesson applies. Whether Donald Trump or someone else is the Republican nominee in 2024, his style—a toxic potpourri of machismo, populism, and nationalism—is here to stay.
If the nominee isn’t Trump, who could fill the role? Let me begin with the man who was ahead of the curve, staking out this territory before Trump came along: Chris Christie. Now, I know progressives are rolling their eyes heavenward. What about Bridgegate? What about how Christie humiliated himself by endorsing Trump? What about the meme of him lounging on a beach while state beaches were closed to the public? In a GOP primary, those things won’t hurt him, and some of them may help him.
Christie is publicly mulling a run; aside from being an authentic bully, here’s what we also know about Christie: He has mad political skills. He was elected governor of New Jersey. Twice. As a Republican. The second time, he won by a landslide. Later, during a crucial New Hampshire primary debate, he single-handedly destroyed the 2016 campaign of Marco Rubio: a man many of us saw as a once-in-a-generation candidate. Christie has sharp elbows, and he’s recently throwing them at Trump. Christie has been a critic of Trump’s election fraud claims since November.
A former federal prosecutor, Christie ousted incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in 2009, promising to take on the public-employee unions. And he never stopped fighting. Take for example, the special education teacher named Melissa Tomlinson who confronted him in 2013. She provoked a debate and a finger-wagging rant from Christie that ended with the line, “I’m sick of you people.” Here’s the thing. Christie’s supporters LOVED it. “As the bus door closed, Tomlinson found herself surrounded by Christie partisans. An elderly woman turned to Tomlinson and told her, ‘You’re in the wrong place, hon,’” reported NorthJersey.com. “‘The crowd started heckling, and cheering for Christie,’ Tomlinson recalled. ‘I almost have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) from it. I keep seeing people looming over my head.’”
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” said the great pugilist and philosopher, Mike Tyson. In Christie’s Jersey, lots of people got (rhetorically) punched in the mouth (he would later say that teachers unions deserve “a punch in the face.”) And, for a long time, it worked. Flawlessly!
In fact, it’s likely that Trump learned something from Christie, who, after all, was right next door. “Christie may have been the ‘pioneer, the guy Trump learned from,’ said Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex. He has been a frequent target of Christie’s wrath, dubbed a ‘hack lawyer’ during a recent dispute over the management of NJ Transit.” It may be no coincidence that Ann Coulter, who saw Trump’s rise in 2016, saw something in Christie back in 2011.
Christie ended up leaving office as a wildly unpopular governor. But from the standpoint of winning a Republican primary in today’s political environment, the biggest mistake he ever made was hugging Barack Obama after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Jersey shore. Could Christie bully his way back into GOP superstar status in 2024?
Of course, there is a catch-22. Republican voters like Trump because he’s the alpha dog, but (the assumption is) anyone who succeeds Trump will have to at least be in his good graces. Therefore, they must subordinate their ambitions to Trump. See the problem?
For someone who isn’t going to automatically defer to Trump, though, this could be an opportunity. If Trump freezes the field, that allows Christie to either (a) get a head start when Trump finally decides not to run, or (b) get a clean shot at a one-on-one race against Trump, with the hope that many Republicans who grudgingly supported Trump might prefer the former guy to stay former. This is a high-risk, high-reward strategy. Christie could get destroyed and humiliated by Trump who—let’s be honest—is the clear frontrunner for the nomination.
Or it could work. Ask yourself this question: If Christie really wants to be president, and is willing to suffer the slings and arrows, is there a better strategy? By 2028, there will be a huge field of new Republicans (some of whom we’ve probably never even heard of). Christie missed his window when his approval numbers were through the roof in 2012 and decided to bide his time, which was a mistake. It’s hard to imagine that Christie would have better odds by waiting his turn and competing in a larger field seven years from now.
For more reasons than one, Christie’s 2024 slogan should be “Go Big or Go Home!” Christie seems to understand this. “I’m also not going to be one of these people who’s going to say, ‘Well, I’ll wait to see what President Trump’s going to do.’ I’m not going to defer to anyone if I decide that’s what I want to do and that I think I’m the best option for the party and for the country,” Christie said on a podcast last month. “I think if you say you’re deferring to someone, that’s a sign of both weakness and indecision, and we’ve already got that in the White House.”
The other leading candidate to fill this role is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who came in second to Trump at the CPAC straw poll and (more recently) topped Trump in “approval” at the Western Conservative Summit’s straw poll. As HotAir’s Allahpundit pointed out, “DeSantis’s one great advantage over Trump [and, I would argue, Christie!] is that, as a sitting governor, he can actively fight culture-war battles with skin in the game while Trump is relegated to issuing press releases.” Examples include “vaccine passports, a ‘minute of silence’ for students in public schools, banning transgender women from women’s sports, most recently offering to send Florida law enforcement to the border.” Of course, the 60 Minutes attack on DeSantis might be his greatest asset, because it simultaneously casts him as victim, MSM fighter, and victor.
Like Christie, DeSantis must navigate trying to take over a party that Trump hasn’t vacated—much like their shared state of Florida.
A post-Trump GOP headed by DeSantis or Christie wouldn’t be my first choice, but would it at least be tolerable? Perhaps. Like pornography, we’ll know it when we see it. Regardless, I’m betting the party’s next presidential nominee will be either Trump or a slightly less chaotic and maybe more competent version of Trump.
This should concern a whole slew of wanna-be presidential candidates, starting with Mike Pence. Pence was booed recently at a conservative confab, making him the first politician to be jeered by both fans of the Hamilton musical and attendees of the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference. The latest hissing incident is more telling. Historically, vice presidents have huge built-in advantages; however, we are talking about a political leader whose own base literally tried to kill him. Pence’s career is premised on playing the good cop while furtively advancing a conservative agenda that may belie his sunny “aw-shucks” demeanor.
Today’s GOP has no room for someone who speaks softly, even if he (or she) carries a big stick. They want a real bully to fill the bully pulpit. That’s why, if anyone is to succeed Trump in the GOP, Christie and DeSantis are where the smart money’s at.