In the coming months, Mitt Romney will commit gaffes, lose the message in multiple news cycles, and offer up frustrating policy proposals. He will also inspire the Tea Party faithful with moments like his victory speech on April 25th, where he outlined a clear vision of a great and competitive America that is free of class warfare and unnecessary dependence on government. How should a frustrated conservative electorate filter this coming whirlwind and set expectations for their latest presidential candidate? The answer to figuring out this former blue-state governor may lie in a current one.
Former District Attorney, current NJ governor, and potential vice-presidential nominee Chris Christie has become a national conservative icon. His acid tongue has lashed out at unions, the Jersey Shore cast, Warren Buffett, US Senators, and even the President of the United States. He has also reformed the public employee entitlement system that was bankrupting the state. Depending on whose side you’re on, Christie is either a fearless warrior or an intimidating bully. Conservatives believe he is on their side, and the prospect of unleashing him on a national stage to take on President Obama electrifies the base.
However, Christie didn’t become a fire-breathing conservative warrior until after he got elected. In his primary campaign, Christie ran as the ‘establishment candidate,’ positioning himself to the left of conservative Steve Lonegan. Once he was free of his GOP primary shackles, Christie marched even further left. Seeking to placate NJ liberals, his campaign avoided the issue of property tax relief, even though it was just behind jobs and the economy as the top issue of the 2009 campaign. To cover for his perceived incompetence on the issue, Christie awkwardly broached the subject of his strategic insouciance, “[T]he strategy decision is not something I’m generally engaged in.” This interesting take on the candidate’s role in managing his campaign prompted one conservative insider to comment, “Christie is running the worst campaign I’ve ever seen. Everyone knows that there’s a tax revolt going on except the Christie campaign.” In addition, Christie has also voiced support for the concept of manmade global warming and commented that “being in this country without proper documentation is not a crime.”
Christie halted a precipitous drop in the polls when he responded to a veiled jab at his weight by the Jon Corzine campaign. “Man up and say I’m fat.” The future governor flashed the fiery grit that may have won him the election, helped him launch a fiscal revolution in the Garden State, and would eventually elevate him as a national Republican icon. The rest is YouTube.
Will Mitt Romney follow Christie’s trajectory to conservative icon? He could if you believe that the rhetoric and tactics for campaigning are not the same as those for governing. Great leadership is recognizing and overcoming the great challenges of the time, not budgeting political capital across a spectrum of issues. From Abraham Lincoln ending slavery and winning the Civil War to Ronald Reagan liberating the U.S. economy and facilitating the Soviet Union’s collapse, this pattern holds. These leaders’ other victories and missteps pale in comparison to their great accomplishments.
Christie gets this. Just as he isolated and tackled government corruption as District Attorney, he has isolated and tackled public employee unions reluctant to surrender their plush benefits arrangements. His unfocused 2009 campaign of strategic ineptitude was not indicative, but rather an aberration. He transformed from the “worst campaign…ever seen” to a Republican governor with a 59% approval rating in deep blue New Jersey.
So will a President Romney follow the example of Governor Christie? Romney has already turned the corner in his campaign, just as Christie finally did, and transformed from hands-off campaigner to bare knuckle brawler, as Newt Gingrich can attest to after Romney took the fight to him in the Florida primary debate.
Romney’s executive strength is his mastery of the fiscal turnaround. He honed the art at his tenure in Bain Capital and put on a national clinic when he brought success to the previously corrupt and failing 2002 Olympics. He took deep blue Massachusetts from a budget deficit to a budget surplus during his one term as governor. Just as Christie’s track record in prosecution was a testament to his capabilities, Romney’s fiscal success is a testament to well-practiced skillsets that produce consistent results.
Romney and Christie each have liberal warts. Romney has suffered because of previous campaigns geared toward electorates that, for the most part, held values and core beliefs that run counter to core conservatism. Romneycare is the primary of these, but Romney has pledged to repeal Obamacare, which is the closest he can come to refuting his own healthcare reform. Christie’s more moderate positions remain mostly hidden in the white noise of a blue electorate and the magnitude of his successes. However, just as conservatives respect Christie for his big picture accomplishments, conservatives should keep an eye to what Romney can do.
The big picture for the United States is this: we are staring down the fiscal barrel at the three-headed Cerberus of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, a beast that threatens the United States’ role as economic superpower. Romney is already ahead of the game, as he is running for a mandate on restoring economic liberty, the underlying requirement for all other attempted solutions. This is the great challenge the next president must rise to conquer.
So as the general election campaign unfolds, keep heart. Before Reagan was Reagan, he passed the most liberal abortion law in the country and the highest tax raise in California’s history. Before Christie was Christie, he supported lax immigration enforcement and fell for global warming hysteria. If Romney can stay true to his strengths, we just might say: Before Romney was Romney….