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.
3. A broken opposition. By the time Wilson was elected to the governorship of New Jersey in 1910, the Republicans had been in control of Congress for 16 years. That’s a long time to be in power – and it showed, as the GOP coalition started to behave dysfunctionally. Worse, the aloof President Taft was not the kind of hands-on manager that TR had been, and the result was disastrous. The GOP had campaigned in 1908, ”unequivocally for a revision of the tariff,” and Taft had long been favor of reducing the schedules. In 1909, the House passed a tariff reduction bill, but after it got through the Senate, the finished product actually resulted in a net tariff hike. The reason? The special interests of the age basically owned the upper chamber, and had the bill redrafted to their liking. In response to the widespread public outcry, Senate Republican leader Nelson Aldrich, who doubled as the boss of Rhode Island, admitted that the 1908 platform had called for revisions, but haughtily asked, “Where did we ever make the statement we would revise the tariff downward?”
Obamacare reminds me more than a little bit of the “Payne-Aldrich" tariff bill; both are evidence that the party in power is broken. Either unwilling or unable to do the public’s bidding, the Republicans of 1909-1911 and the Democrats of today are instead in hock to special interests. And much like Taft, President Obama has been unwilling or unable to manage his unwieldy congressional allies. Payne-Aldrich was terrible for the country writ large, but it created a fantastic opportunity for Wilson and the opposing Democrats in 1912. Christie and the GOP now have a similar opening some 100 years later.
Again, running for president is a distinctly personal choice. You are either willing to make the sacrifices for the job, or you are not. If Chris Christie is capable of committing the next decade to the presidency, he should run. Like Woodrow Wilson before him, this is a perfect moment that probably will never come again.
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