By Matt Rooney | The Save Jersey Blog
We’ve all heard F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “[t]here are no second acts in American lives” line, Save Jerseyans.
It was uttered in a very different time. Modern Americans love a good comeback story. Hollywood’s obsession with sequels and prequels isn’t solely attributable to a crisis in imagination! So when Governor Chris Christie got sent packing from the presidential trail last week, Save Jerseyans, he reportedly got some friendly advice from Ohio’s John Kasich which can’t be dismissed out of hand even if it seems crazy in light of recent events:
Kasich says he told Christie yesterday that the "sun’s going to come up, you’re a young man, and there’s great things in your future."
— Thomas Kaplan (@thomaskaplan) February 12, 2016
Yeah yeah, I hear you. His approval rating is in the toilet, an epic an prolonged campaigning effort yielded only 7.4% support in New Hampshire, his Democratic allies no longer have much of an incentive to work with him and two of his former top Republican lieutenants are under indictment and trying to subpoena his text records. There isn’t much light but a whole lot of tunnel. You may not even think he deserves a second act. That’s a discussion for another post.
More serious? Events in the twilight hours of his 2016 effort make me wonder whether he’s learned from his missteps.
Then again he’s only 53 years old. Another undeniably talented yet flawed GOP talent was declared washed-up and over around the same age following not one but two spectacular electoral butt-kickings: Richard Nixon.
They’ve got plenty in common including, for a time, having reached the apex of the American political consciousness. Scarily smart, strategically-gifted retail politicians with deep emotional reservoirs, classic American stories, and the ability to kick longer when necessary in the interest of self-preservation (See: Checkers Speech vs. that marathon Bridgegate presser) and even Henry Kissinger as a notable booster who were nevertheless handicapped by a penchant for allowing political appetites and passions to overwhelm common sense at key crossroads.
Nixon infamously hurled “[y]ou won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” at his press corps antagonists after a comeback California gubernatorial bid blew up in the ex-vice president’s face. Christie? He savagely attacked a long-time GOP mayor and local supporter in the campaign’s final hours, unfairly branding him a liar for suggesting a winter storm had seriously impacted Cape May County, only to return home one week later to seek federal disaster funds for seventeen counties.
Therein lies a key difference. Nixon was at his worst when he, like Hillary Clinton many years later, became obsessed with the conspiratorial machinations of elites, both real and imagined, arrayed against him. Christie, on the other hand, tends to beat the crap out of ‘the little guy’ at inopportune moments even when he or she deserved it. A local elected official, misguided union teacher or town hall heckler who is far more sympathetic than a snarky reporter from a major newspaper (the kind he used to prefer to eat!).
No we’re at where we’re at. We all know that the Governor won’t be content to sit on the sidelines. He thrives on being in the fight. If he doesn’t land a cabinet job and wants a second act like Nixon, he’s got to learn from the good (and bad) aspects of Nixon’s path back to the top after tumbling to the bottom the heap.
Tuesday’s FY 2017 budget speech could be a small but important start.
First off, the Governor needs to take on the powers that be instead of trying to co-opt them. He also should step up and be the active party-building leader that he frankly hasn’t been (and Nixon never was) to develop deeper loyalties and a broader home base. Lastly, but most critically, it’s time to start thinking big again – no more school dinner nonsense – and re-frame the public debate in a way that Donald Trump has (!) by speaking plainly and voicing what the average right-of-center voter is thinking – a tactic appropriated from Christie’s own 2009-2011 playbook that’s currently collecting dust somewhere in the State House Annex.
Will he pull it off? Could he? Who knows. Few do.
Yet John Kasich is no dummy, folks, having been in and out of the business himself; he knows talent when he sees it and understands how political fortunes wax and wane and change. Chris Christie is still the most talented debater and stump speaker since Bill Clinton. At least through 2011, he was also the most gifted political tactician in American politics. We’ll only discover his ultimate fate through the passage of time and if the Governor decides, in his heart, that he has the courage to grow and once again be the leader many of us first rallied to back in February 2009 and disprove Fitzgerald’s oft-quoted thesis.