Morning Jay: Christie Should Follow Woodrow Wilson—And Run
6:00 AM, Oct 3, 2011 • By JAY COST
Despite continued claims that he’s not running for the White House, credible news outlets continue to report that Chris Christie is still considering running for president. But should he run?
Ultimately, a presidential bid is an intimate and personal choice. After all, Christie would have to commit the next ten years to living in the presidential bubble, and his life would forever be altered. Some people just can’t stomach that. But if Christie can, and if he does indeed have presidential ambitions, he should run now.
In fact, Christie should think carefully about the career of the last president from New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson. The political trajectories of Christie in 2009-2011 and Wilson in 1910-1911 are eerily similar. Christie, like Wilson before him, faces a very strange set of political circumstances that suggests now is the best, if not the only, time to go for it.
I count three notable parallels between Christie and Wilson, all of which point very strongly in the direction of a presidential bid.
1. A rare victory. One hundred years ago, New Jersey was a solidly Republican state. It had backed the Democrats in the 1880s and 1890s, but after the party swung to the populist left under Nebraskan William Jennings Bryan, it fell comfortably into the Republican column. When Wilson won the governorship in 1910 – the first Democratic victory in over a decade – it was a bit of a fluke. By 1914 the GOP would retake the state legislature as well as a majority of U.S. House seats, and by 1916 it would win back the governorship. In other words, as a Democrat in a solidly Republican state, Wilson’s window to run for higher office was extremely narrow. It’s very possible that, had he sat on the sidelines in 1912, he never would have had another chance. What’s more, the kinds of things Wilson would have to do to stay in office in the more conservative East might very well have alienated the party’s populist base in the West, thus costing him the nomination at the 1916 convention.
Christie is in a similar position in New Jersey. Today, it’s a Democratic state, and Christie only won the governorship because of widespread dissatisfaction with the Corzine administration. It’s highly questionable that he’ll be able to win reelection in 2013, especially if the Republicans take the White House and, with it, any blame if the economy is still weak. What’s more, the kinds of positions he’ll have to take to win reelection in New Jersey will assuredly harm him with the conservative GOP base, should he run in 2016 or 2020.
2. The man meets the moment. Woodrow Wilson was the original flip-flopper. William Howard Taft said of him, “I regard him as a ruthless hypocrite…He surrenders a conviction, previously expressed, without the slightest hesitation, and never even vouchsafes to the public the arguments upon which he was induced to change his mind.”
Indeed, Wilson had been a conservative Democrat in the 1890s and early 1900s, even voting against Bryan in 1896. His prime sponsor for the governorship of New Jersey was conservative Colonel George Harvey, who convinced the party bosses that he would be amenable to their interests once in Trenton. But Wilson correctly sensed the shifting winds of American politics, as the country was moving steadily in the progressive direction, so he repositioned himself as a leading reformer once in office. He even went so far as to convince the legislature to vote down the machine’s pick for the Senate. At the Baltimore convention in 1912, Wilson unapologetically aligned himself with Bryan against the conservative Easterners, which was a big reason he ultimately won the nomination. In the end, Wilson had his finger on the pulse of the country, which is why he was the only Democrat between Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt to win reelection.
Christie, unlike Wilson, has not been a flip-flopper. Instead, he’s just a natural fit with the spirit of the age. Poll after poll has shown that the public simply lacks confidence in the ability of the government to do the things it’s supposed to do, and Christie has focused his efforts in New Jersey on getting government to work better. It’s rare that a man meets the moment as perfectly as Christie and 2012. One hundred years earlier, Wilson had to swing dramatically to the left to match the spirit of his times, but Christie is a natural fit.