LONDON — Thinking of seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2016? London is calling.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie this weekend becomes the latest in a parade of potential candidates to journey across the Atlantic to try and nurture their own special relationship with Great Britain — or at least enhance their limited foreign policy credentials.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio made the trip in December of 2013. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence came in July. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was here in October, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in November and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in January. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is scheduled to arrive Feb. 9.
They’ve all had different, and usually official, reasons for coming — Christie’s trip formally aimed at building the economic ties that bind New Jersey businesses to the United Kingdom, as well as strengthening cultural and diplomatic connections between them. But the trips also serve as practice runs for performing on a potentially larger stage, whether as a presidential nominee or as commander in chief.
“For these candidates in the Republican primary, where that foreign policy debate is about to be joined in a very big way, I think that getting those credentials locked in as quickly as possible makes a lot of sense for them,” said former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who helped then-Sen. Barack Obama prepare for his major — and very successful — overseas trip as a presidential candidate in the summer of 2008.
Building up credibility on the world stage is all the more important for the 2016 crop of hopefuls because of their likely opponent: Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state who also has spent significant time in the harsh spotlight shone on a spouse in the Oval Office. In contrast, most — if not all — of the Republican candidates are either young senators with relatively short experience in federal office or governors with limited background in diplomacy and world affairs.
That diplomatic arena, with its highly orchestrated protocols and nuanced context, is often unforgiving — even the slightest mistake can carry enormous consequences. In 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney visited London for the Olympics, fundraising and government meetings, only to offend his hosts straight out of the gate by questioning the security preparations for the Games.
“We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world. Of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere,” Prime Minister David Cameron said at the time, shortly after meeting privately with the presidential candidate. The comment was a swipe at Romney’s tenure running the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002.
Romney’s missteps — he flew on to Israel, where Palestinian leaders labeled him a racist for saying culture contributed to Jewish Israelis’ economic advantages over the Palestinians — came in sharp contrast to the enormously successful trip that Obama took through the Middle East and Europe when he was as a candidate. Flying in a helicopter with then-Gen. David Petraeus, grabbing a basketball and nailing his first try of a three-point shot in front of troops in Kuwait, speaking to thousands of adoring Europeans in Berlin — it all served to portray Obama as a plausible commander in chief.
“Those are images, quite frankly, that are worth their weight in gold,” Gibbs said.
Christie, of course, comes to London with a much lower profile than a major party nominee. Though like Romney, he plans to mix some play with work on his London sojourn. On Sunday, Christie will attend a Premiere League soccer match — Arsenal Football Club is hosting Aston Villa. On Monday, he’ll meet with Cameron and have dinner with members of the prime minister’s cabinet. He’ll then travel to Cambridge, the home of Cambridge University, to meet with health care and life science industry representatives and tour a biologics research company that does business in Princeton, N.J., and to lay a wreath at the Cambridge American Cemetery, where the remains of many Americans who died in World War II are buried.
On Tuesday, he plans to meet with George Osborne, who serves as Chancellor of the Exchequer, a position similar to the chairman of the Federal Reserve. He also plans to attend a rehearsal of Henry V at the Globe, the historic Shakespeare theater, where Rutgers University has an exchange program.
The travel to London is Christie’s third international trip as governor. Last year, he went to Canada and to Mexico City, using those journeys to emphasize economic ties for his state.
While Christie is widely expected to mount a bid for president, he’s largely refused to engage on substantive national or international policy issues on his previous overseas trips. In Mexico City, he dodged questions about his position on immigration reform, telling reporters, “I won’t have anything to say on immigration unless and until I become a candidate for president of the United States, if that happens, then I will articulate a full position on it.”
In Canada, he did give an energy policy speech focused on the Keystone Pipeline.
But Christie has engaged somewhat in the debate over civil liberties, privacy and the war on terror — currently a point of some friction between the U.S. and the U.K., as well as a subject of disagreement within the Republican Party.
“As a former prosecutor who was appointed by President George W. Bush on Sept. 10, 2001, I just want us to be really cautious, because this strain of libertarianism that’s going through both parties right now and making big headlines, I think, is a very dangerous thought,” Christie told an Aspen Institute forum in Colorado in 2013. The comments sparked a spat with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who told Fox News, “It’s really, I think, kind of sad and cheap that he would use the cloak of 9/11 victims and say, ‘oh, I’m the only one who cares about these victims.’ Hogwash.”
The U.K. government is in some ways closer to Christie’s position than to Paul’s — during a recent visit to the United States, Cameron pressed Obama to pressure Internet companies to prevent terrorists from using their networks to communicate. The president emphasized the need to balance privacy with civil liberties.