RSS
Chris Christie is the big winner of the government shutdown
His 2016 prospects are suddenly looking a whole lot brighter
For Christie, the government shutdown may not be such a bad thing.
For Christie, the government shutdown may not be such a bad thing. (Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
I

f you're looking for someone who benefits politically from the government shutdown, look no further than New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R).

Several of his potential 2016 rivals, like Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul, were all — to varying degrees — backing the quixotic "defund ObamaCare" strategy. Today, they look like children in comparison to a get-things-done governor like Christie. I don't necessarily think this shutdown will be on the minds of voters in 2016, but what we are witnessing is merely the latest example of a Congress that can't get its act together. Voters will have to ask themselves, "Can we trust these guys to govern?"

The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin has gone so far as to declare that "in 2016 any GOP governor would be a more viable presidential nominee than any GOP senator."

Rubin is right. And if "any" Republican governor might benefit from these times, Christie, I think, is perfectly suited to this moment.

I asked James Strock, author of such books as Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership and Ronald Reagan on Leadership, about this. "Since the beginning of the 20th century, when Washington has failed America, America has turned to governors to change Washington. The Roosevelts, Wilson, and Reagan exemplify this," he said.

"Each of those former governors broke through conventional politics at moments when the country demanded results — and was willing to overlook doubts about their characteristics or histories that might otherwise have been disqualifying. Each was initially underestimated, because they were not standard-issue pols. Sound familiar? One can well imagine a governor who breaks the rules, breaking through yet again in 2016."

In times of crisis and chaos, the public is more likely to turn to a strong-willed executive. I'm not suggesting Christie is an out-and-out authoritarian. He just feels like one. His bullying and bluster might have been mocked in a calmer time. But these days, one imagines the public might yearn for a leader who can, though the sheer force of his will, force Congress into line. Maybe we need someone strong to break the fever?

I once thought Marco Rubio was the man to beat. He would be the conservative version of Obama — an eloquent orator with a moving biography who could persuade and inspire the public to embrace conservative policy solutions.

More and more, however, I'm beginning to believe that, as important as that is, it's not the most critical thing voters will be looking for. They aren't going to be looking for a visionary speaker, but instead, for a strong leader. To put it in paternalistic terms, they will want a daddy figure to make it all better. This person, stylistically, will be the anti-Obama — a decisive leader. And who is more stylistically anti-Obama than Christie?

The most pressing crisis threatening America isn't political liberalism, so much as it is the atomization of our society. The center will not hold.

To explain, let me refer to something I wrote more than a year ago about the travails Speaker John Boehner faced. I argued that Boehner's impotence was really the product of societal trends that had found their way into our political system. Here's an excerpt:

Americans once belonged to the same church their whole life, worked at the same job for 40 years, and stayed married to the same person till death did they part. Those days are gone. Institutional loyalty has been degraded, and the person leading such an institution no longer has as much sway as he once did.

As a result, being the "boss" no longer really matters. Titles aren't what they used to be. One can't help but think this societal trend is also impacting the way we view political leaders — including the way rank-and-file members view congressional leaders.

What we are seeing happen now transcends the GOP's intransigence and Obama's incompetence. What we are seeing is actually the playing out of a larger trend whereby a "free agent nation" no longer respects its leaders. We see this when Liz Cheney shows up in Wyoming and decides she wants to be a senator, despite an entire party telling her not to run. We see this when a guy from Texas shows up in the U.S. Senate, and 15 minutes later is undermining the speaker of the House.

This, of course, is why Christie might be the right man at the right time.

Republicans might also benefit from having a leader who can stand up to the rebels within the GOP – especially if the shutdown hurts Republicans, causing them to re-evaluate which leaders deserve to be taken seriously.

I know what you're thinking. Christie can never win a Republican nomination. He's too moderate for the conservative base. Maybe. But consider this: John McCain and Mitt Romney were each able to win the GOP nomination when other candidates split the right-wing vote. Similarly, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz will likely duke it out eventually, opening the door for Christie to win without uber-conservatives.

What is more, Christie's macho persona covers a multitude of sins. Conservatives already conflate toughness with ideology (both sides do this actually), so Christie will always be perceived as more conservative than he is. He can say the same things as Jon Huntsman, if he likes, and they will sound more conservative coming from him. There is really no believable way to portray Christie as being part of a "surrender caucus." I challenge anyone to compare him to Nazi appeasers and see what happens.

It usually takes three presidential losses before a political party has a "come to Jesus" moment and commits to winning. For example, it took three losses before the Democrats nominated a DLC "moderate" Southern governor like Bill Clinton (see my post on why Chris Christie might be the GOP's Bill Clinton).

But what if the shutdown turns out to be a really big lesson for the GOP? What if it is remarkably bad? Might not that expedite this learning process, giving a boost to Christie's candidacy?

History tells us there are certain moments where the stars align — when men can go from gadfly to leader almost overnight, based on changing circumstances. It's altogether possible that, as things get worse in D.C., Chris Christie will look less and less like Chris Farley, and more and more like Winston Churchill.

Matt K. Lewis is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com, writes for The Daily Caller, and co-hosts The DMZ on Bloggingheads.tv. In 2012, the American Conservative Union honored Matt as  CPAC "Blogger of the Year." Matt lives in Alexandria, Va.

EDITORS' PICKS

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week