Opinion | I Loved Watching Chris Christie Tear Into Trump. That’s a Problem.

By Michelle Goldberg

Opinion Columnist

GOFFSTOWN, N.H. — After watching Chris Christie lambaste Donald Trump at the standing-room-only town hall where he announced his presidential campaign, Catherine Johnson, who grew up in Republican political circles, was delighted. “It was vintage Chris Christie and I loved it,” said Johnson, a 63-year-old retiree. “I believe I know where he stands on the issues. And I love where he stands on Donald Trump.”

Johnson, whose father, William Johnson, was once the head of New Hampshire’s Republican Party, supported Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, when he ran for president in 2016. She’s planning to volunteer for him this time around. “Governor Christie still reminds me of what a moderate Republican is,” she said. She was happy that he hadn’t spoken about banning books or critical race theory; at the packed event, which went on for more than two hours, culture war issues barely came up. “Honestly, we don’t care about that stuff very much,” Johnson said. “I know I don’t.”

But to vote for Christie in the primary, Johnson would have to change her voter registration, because during Trump’s presidency she became a Democrat. And though she’s not thrilled with Joe Biden — “It’s hard for me to watch him give a speech because he’s so prone to gaffes,” she said — she’s not even sure she’d vote for Christie in the general, because she fears a Republican president would empower the “crazy” Republicans in the House and the Senate. “If Chris Christie is the nominee,” she said, “I’m going to have to think really hard about my vote.”

Christie’s problem is that he’s running for the nomination of a party that no longer exists. In a G.O.P. where people like Johnson still felt at home, his pitch, a wholesale rejection not just of Trump but also of Trumpism, would make sense. But that Republican Party is dead; by backing Trump in 2016, Christie helped kill it. So it’s hard to figure out what he thinks he’s up to, even if his kamikaze attacks on the ex-president — “a lonely, self-consumed, self-serving mirror hog” — are fun to watch.

The ex-governor certainly has fans. At his launch event here, you could almost see how he’d convinced himself that he might have a chance. A standing ovation will do that for you. I’d expected at least a few wary conservatives, if not outright MAGA trolls, in the crowd. But while there were Trump supporters protesting outside, the auditorium at Saint Anselm College was full of people hungry for Christie’s message. I asked David Dickey, who’d voted for Trump twice but turned against him after Jan. 6, what he’d do if Trump was the nominee again. He’d never vote for Biden, he said. Instead, he just wouldn’t cast a ballot.

There aren’t nearly enough people like this, however, for Christie to win the Republican nomination. One March poll found that while only 40 percent of registered voters view Trump favorably, 81 percent of Republicans do. Christie seems to believe he can change these numbers. He argued, in fact, that there are no such things as “Trump voters,” only people who voted for Trump. “I don’t think he owns them,” he said during the town hall. “He thinks he owns them.” After 2016, Christie said, Trump also thought he owned the general electorate. “And what did they show him in 2020? Not so fast.”

But the general electorate changed only around the edges between 2016 and 2020. Whereas to have a chance, Christie would have to catalyze a moral and ideological revolution inside his party.

His central insight, that the only way to beat Trump is by taking him on directly, is almost certainly correct. It was a pleasure to watch him mock his passive-aggressive competitors with their coded criticisms of the ex-president. He intoned, with mock earnestness, “We need a leader who looks forward, not backwards.” The crowd burst out laughing. Then, as if solving a puzzle, he exclaimed: “Oooh! You’re talking about the way he still thinks the 2020 election was stolen! And you won’t say it wasn’t stolen!”

It was even more amusing listening to Christie tear into Trump. He called him a “bitter, angry man who wants power back for himself” and told a story about Trump urging him, when he was governor, to declare bankruptcy for the State of New Jersey. He imitated Trump like Alec Baldwin would on “Saturday Night Live.” He even went after Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner — whose father, you’ll remember, he helped put in prison when he was a prosecutor — for the $2 billion investment Kushner secured from a fund led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. “The grift from this family is breathtaking,” he said.

But my enjoyment of his newfound Resistance shtick doesn’t bode well for Christie. The people he needs to win over are not liberal New York Times columnists, but voters who hate liberal New York Times columnists. The trick, for a Republican, is going to be painting Trump as a weak loser who will sabotage right-wing priorities. At times Christie tried to do this, as when he criticized Trump for his failure to build the border wall and repeal the Affordable Care Act. But many of his criticisms were decidedly centrist. He attacked Trump for “idolizing” Vladimir Putin and trying to extort President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, admitting, in an offhand line, that Biden deserves admiration for uniting Europe against Russian aggression. He praised John McCain, expounded on the necessity of compromise and agreed with one questioner that Trump had “traumatized” the country.

At one point, in response to a question about drug prices, Christie spoke about the need to protect pharmaceutical innovation, lauding Pfizer’s investment in mRNA vaccines. I appreciate that he won’t pander to his party’s Covid skepticism, but I also can’t imagine this going over well with the Republican electorate. Later, in response to a question about “reproductive justice” from a young woman who appeared to be pro-choice, he said the matter should be entirely left up to the states, which should be free to enact laws as permissive or as restrictive as they wish. That might be a good stance for a general election, but it is sure to alienate influential right-wing activists.

So what is Christie up to? One theory is that he wants to redeem himself after his humiliating embrace of Trump by filleting him on the debate stage, much as he did to Marco Rubio in 2016. But to qualify for the debates, Republican candidates must have at least 1 percent support across several polls, have at least 40,000 individual donors from 20 states or territories and pledge to support whoever wins the Republican nomination. Even if Christie clears the polling and donor thresholds, he’s already sworn never to back Trump again, and his entire campaign is premised on Trump’s total unfitness.

Maybe Alan Steinberg, a former Bush administration official and a columnist for Insider NJ, was on to something when he speculated that Christie might eventually run as an independent. “Given the virtual impossibility of Christie winning the 2024 G.O.P. presidential nomination, would he be willing to accept the role of the presidential candidate of a 2024 center-right independent party?” Steinberg wrote in April. After all, if Trump is ultimately nominated to face Biden, a contest most Americans do not want to reprise, the clamor for third-party candidates is likely to be intense.

Or maybe Christie really thinks the force of his personality is so great that he can single-handedly turn his party around. “I’ve seen some of the press coverage of me getting ready to run, and there’s this thing like, ‘Christie doesn’t really care about winning, all he cares about doing is destroying Trump,’” he said. “Now let me ask you something. How are those two things mutually exclusive?” The crowd burst into applause. A test for Christie will be whether he can sustain his bluster in front of an audience that doesn’t start out on his side.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

Michelle Goldberg has been an Opinion columnist since 2017. She is the author of several books about politics, religion and women’s rights, and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2018 for reporting on workplace sexual harassment. @michelleinbklyn

Site Index

Site Information Navigation

Source: Read Full Article