Why Romney should reconsider Chris Christie

Posted: July 12, 2012

No U.S. president since Franklin Roosevelt has won reelection when the unemployment rate was more than 7.4 percent. That has many Republicans wondering why Mitt Romney isn't the runaway favorite over President Obama.

So why isn't he? Because Obama remains more popular personally than one would otherwise expect. Because the Obama campaign has been more effective at sowing doubt about Romney's record as a wealthy capitalist than the Romney campaign anticipated — which is evidence to some that Romney's campaign isn't overstaffed with brilliant strategists. And because Romney himself has an unfortunate tendency to come off as artificial and superficial.

Even Romney's allies know he lacks the chemical building blocks of likability. A voter in West Virginia recently asked House Speaker John Boehner the lamenting question, "Can you make me love Mitt Romney?" Boehner answered plainly, "The American people probably aren't going to fall in love with Mitt Romney."

Many of Romney's problems arise from his lack of perceived authenticity. This suggests that he should choose a running mate who conveys a feeling of he-just-can't-help-himself genuineness. That's why the talk about Romney's unwillingness to consider New Jersey's Gov. Christie for the vice presidential slot is a bit of a mystery to me.

Large liabilities

There are, to be fair, many reasons Romney might want to keep Christie off the ticket. Christie has an excessively large mouth. He is easily provoked. He turns up late to speeches on occasion. He doesn't quit when he's ahead. He is no one's idea of a deputy.

He comes from a state the Republicans can't win, no matter what Romney does. He is a Northeastern, laissez-faire Republican mistrusted by social conservatives. And, of course, he is unwieldy and overweight; Romney looks anorexic by comparison.

On the other hand, if Romney wanted to actually win the presidency, he might consider Christie.

I've been looking at Romney's vice presidential possibilities for the past couple of weeks, and I've been struck by two things. First, as Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson has noted, the field of Republican vice presidential hopefuls is much more impressive than the field of Republican presidential hopefuls was. (Apologies to fans of Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain.)

Second, the most talked-about candidates, while in possession of impressive resumés, are almost comically bland. The first rule when picking a running mate is, of course, don't pick Sarah Palin, or anyone who might remind the voting public of Sarah Palin. The people on Romney's short list — which includes Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan — do not resemble Palin in any way. Romney is safe with any of these candidates.

Will he fill arenas with them? Are any of them particularly skilled at speaking to disaffected blue-collar workers, to Reagan Democrats, without condescension? Pawlenty has a blue-collar background, but he didn't connect with the white working class, or with anyone else, in his abbreviated run for president.

Let me put it another way: Does any of these candidates match Christie's preternatural ability to explain Republican deficit-reduction ideas without coming off as a bloodless budget-cutter?

Overflow crowds

I've spent some time following Christie across New Jersey, to town-hall-style meetings mainly, but also on visits to social-service agencies and, most entertainingly, to a Bruce Springsteen concert in Newark. His town halls are famous for their confrontational tone, but in truth, shouting matches are rare. What isn't rare are huge, overflow crowds. I attended events mainly in high school gymnasiums over the past few months, and at each one, fire marshals had to cap attendance.

Why do people come by the hundreds to weekday-morning meetings in small towns? Because Christie gives them something they want. Not so much the sarcasm (which can be enjoyable), but the skillful, tenacious, and blunt articulation of just where New Jersey's government has gone off the rails — in its budget- making, its management of state-worker pensions, and its uncanny ability to create unfunded mandates. No one in national politics does a better job of arguing against deficit spending than Christie.

An easy prediction: Christie would be filling basketball arenas with wildly enthusiastic fiscal conservatives within two weeks of being chosen as Romney's running mate. Another easy prediction: It ain't going to happen.

The downsides of a Christie pick are fairly limited. But from what I understand, Romney is looking for someone who presents no downsides at all. This aversion to risk might be at the core of the problems plaguing his campaign.

If the campaign does figure out that it needs to balance Romney's upper-crust manner with someone who has actual middle-class, even working-class, credentials, it might very well go with Pawlenty. Pawlenty lost his nerve in the Republican primaries, but he was a talented governor. Can he energize arenas crammed with Republicans looking for inspiration? Doubtful. But nothing the Romney campaign has done so far suggests that it is interested in energizing voters.

Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic.

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