There’s a normal pattern to presidential campaign launches. Candidates kick off their White House bids; they make the case for why they should be elected; and folks like me examine their records, their merits, and how they are likely to fare.
As former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie launches his Republican presidential campaign today, however, there’s a qualitative difference between his candidacy and that of his GOP rivals. The New York Times summarized it this way:
Chris Christie is embarking on a mission that even some of his fiercest allies must squint to see ending in the White House. But Mr. Christie, the former governor of New Jersey who is now 60 and more than five years removed from holding elected office, has been undeterred, talking up an undertaking that he frames as almost as important as winning the presidency: extricating the Republican Party from the grip of Donald J. Trump.
To be sure, the former governor is running for the GOP presidential nomination, and there’s every reason to believe he genuinely wants to prevail in the hopes of eventually taking office. But unlike every other Republican contender, Christie has abandoned all subtlety about the motivation that’s adjacent to his personal ambitions:
Christie wants to take down Trump.
The New Jersey Republican is not a fool. Christie can read the same polls as the rest of us. He can also review the details of his failed 2016 campaign as easily as anyone else — and acknowledge the fact that he’s done very little to improve his standing in the seven years that have followed. He must realize that his odds of winning can be charitably described as poor.
So why bother? Because from Christie’s perspective, there’s a crowded field of national GOP candidates, but there’s one empty lane: No one is focused almost exclusively on trying to take down the scandal-plagued, twice-impeached, currently-under-indictment frontrunner. And so, the former governor intends to fill the empty slot.
In other words, Christie wants to win, but he’s driven in equal measure by a desire to see Trump lose.
There are, however, a couple of flaws in this plan. The first is that the former governor is a deeply flawed messenger. Christie was a Trump critic in 2015, only to reverse course and endorse Trump in early 2016, apparently hoping for a leading role in the next Republican administration. That didn’t work out: Trump put Christie in charge of his transition team, only to fire him a few days after Election Day.
Christie occasionally criticized Trump during his term, only to return to the fold, helping prepare the then-president for his 2020 debates. Now, evidently, Christie has flipped once again, eager to present himself as a credible anti-Trump voice. It’s not an easy sell.
But even if we put recent history aside, I’m not altogether sure how, exactly, Christie intends to take Trump down. The former governor shouldn’t necessarily expect a lot of media attention, since polls suggest he’s not a top-tier contender. He shouldn’t necessarily expect to bombard the former president with attack ads, since they’re expensive and there’s no reason to assume Christie will have full campaign coffers.
It’s easy to imagine Christie excelling on a debate stage, but it’s an open question as to whether the former governor will qualify to participate, and even if he were to make it onto a stage, it’s unlikely Trump would agree to join him.
One of the highlights of Christie’s career was a 2016 debate in which he helped derail Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign, exposing the Floridian as an overly programmed empty suit. The former governor might very well have dreams about comparably derailing Trump. But if the two never share a stage, does Christie have a Plan B?