Chris Christie’s secret storm

Governor Chris Christie’s de facto endorsement of President Obama on the beach at Brigantine, New Jersey, is one of the most bizarre events in the history of American politics.  On October 31st, in the closing days of the presidential election, the keynote speaker at the Republican convention began singing the praises of Barack Obama.

Christie’s defection came at the worst possible moment for the GOP.   After a lackluster summer, the Romney campaign had finally caught fire.  Romney’s clear-cut victory in the October 3rd presidential debate sent him soaring in the polls.   On October 18, Gallup showed Romney seven points up, 52-45.

Then came Sandy.  A wild card hurricane was the last thing either candidate needed but Obama faced the greater danger.  Because the storm was affecting all or part of 24 states, Sandy was a national story.  If Obama failed to respond decisively he could be beaten with the same club that he and others had used so effectively on George W. Bush in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  Bush was hammered for flying over the stricken Gulf coast and not spending time on the ground.  But with a hostile mayor in New Orleans and a panicked governor in Baton Rouge eager to blame the president for their own mistakes – an unwelcome Bush risked being booed, or worse.

President Obama faced similar uncertainties in New Jersey, where his campaign urgently needed a photo-op with Sandy’s victims.  However, a cool reception from a Republican governor could make it seem like candidate Obama was using a battered state to win an election.

When the president called Governor Christie to offer federal assistance, he must have been holding his breath.  But not for long.  Christie responded emotionally to Obama’s overture, praising the president’s leadership and compassion.   Then, incredibly, Christie dismissed the upcoming election – a contest crucially important to the future of America in which the governor had been playing a central role – as “irrelevant”.   On Fox News he rejected any thought of inviting Mitt Romney to tour the stricken areas of New Jersey.  Only the recovery of New Jersey, Christie said, was important to him now.

Nothing required the governor to praise Obama so lavishly or escort him so warmly.   Nothing required him to refuse Mitt Romney equal time at Brigantine.  Surely, the New Jersey governor knew he was Romney’s only hope.  Only Christie could keep Obama from using Hurricane Sandy as a campaign prop.

Instead, the governor continued flattering the president.   Even before the FEMA tap had been turned on, even before the feds had done a thing to help his state, Christie lauded Obama’s handling of the relief effort.  Strategically, it was a blunder.  By praising Obama’s handling of the crisis he gave up the leverage that all governors enjoy — the threat of criticizing and condemning the federal government for not doing enough.  When FEMA stumbled early in the relief effort, Christie’s pre-approval of Obama required the governor to remain silent.

The president, who knows when he’s hooked a fish, played Christie skillfully.  He thrilled the governor by giving him his personal phone number and later put Christie’s idol Bruce Springsteen on the line.  Christie admitted that he was so touched by this clever gesture (Springsteen was campaigning with Obama at the time) that he went home and cried.

Democrats watched the unfolding melodrama with suspicion, then with incredulity.   At the New York Times a flabbergasted Maureen Dowd called Christie’s bow to Obama “A total gift – and from a Republican and top Romney surrogate.”

It was a rich gift for which Christie received nothing in return.   Everything Christie got from FEMA and the White House would have been given anyway.  Obama would never stiff a strongly Democratic state, especially when Christie is up for reelection next year and Newark’s popular mayor Cory Booker is a sure bet to run against him.

Some insist that Romney must have refused to promise Christie a top position in his administration.  Or maybe Christie received some secret quid pro quo from the White House.   No one changes sides in the last week of a presidential campaign for nothing.

Conspiracy theory aside, there are only two real possibilities for Christie’s desertion.  First, the governor decided to climb over Mitt Romney’s body to elevate his own reelection chances.  By shifting toward the Democratic end of the spectrum, Christie hoped to win liberal votes as he meets next year’s challenge from Cory Booker.

If that is Christie’s plan, he seems to have succeeded, at least temporarily.  A November 21 Rutgers-Eagleton poll showed Christie rated favorably by 67 percent of likely New Jersey voters, up 19 points in a month.  The Quinnipiac poll had even better news, with 89 percent of New York City residents approving the governor’s response to the storm.  Saturday Night Live chipped in by awarding Christie a guest appearance, a sure sign the political left now regards him as harmless.

However, when the shooting starts next year, it’s unlikely that Christie will keep his liberal friends.  The governor is widely despised by New Jersey’s Democratic organizations and union leaders, who have not forgiven him for loosening their grip on the state treasury.   They want Christie gone in 2013 and the mainstream media will follow their lead.

The other possibility is that psychology explains Christie’s sudden change of heart.  The governor, frightened and disoriented by a terrible storm, needed someone to hold his hand.  On the beach at Brigantine, Papa Barack came to Christie’s rescue, and the distraught governor — confusing political arithmetic with presidential approval – became part of the Obama campaign.

Whatever the cause of Christie’s betrayal, next year he’ll face the consequences.  Turncoats, no matter how obscure their motives, are never respected by those they help, and never forgotten by those they harm.  Christie’s personal weather forecast for 2013 includes another perfect storm — lightning from the left, payback from the right.

Clark Whelton was a speechwriter for New York City mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani.