A Republican from the northeast, telling jokes, doing impressions, and even working a little blue. If you didn’t know better, you’d think it was a Donald Trump campaign event.
Except that Tuesday night at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, the jokes were on him.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may be the longest of long shots to win the GOP presidential nomination, but based on his last two appearances in New Hampshire (both town halls at the NHIOP), he’s decided that, wherever this campaign winds up, he’s going to have a good time getting there.
Mostly at Donald Trump’s expense.
For example, when a member of the audience asked Christie whether, if elected president, he’d be willing to pardon Donald Trump, he gave a serious and thorough answer to the question (spoiler alert: probably not), before adding that the question was moot.
“By accepting the pardon, the person must acknowledge their guilt. And that’s why I’m completely in the clear,” Christie said as the crowd laughed. “That will never happen.”
Christie, 60, began with a somewhat stilted, overly-worked set piece about the choice between “big and small,” how petty politics and divisive leaders were making America a smaller place. “At every pivotal moment in our history, there was a choice between small and big — and America became the most different, the most successful, the most fabulous light for the rest of the world in history because we always picked big,” Christie said.
It seemed like a way to make an asset out of Christie’s weight — a set up for “Go Big! Vote Christie 2024,” but the pitch never came.
But once he began taking questions from the crowd, Christie was loose and relaxed as he worked the packed room without notes or a script. A throng of national media was on hand, a massive mismatch between press interest and candidate potential.
Christie used the NHIOP forum to formally announce he’s seeking the GOP nomination. But he also used it to address the fundamental question many New Hampshire GOP activists — who will be key to helping him build a campaign — have about his candidacy: Is he trying to win, or merely play the role of political kamikaze targeting Trump?
“How are those two things mutually exclusive?” Christie asked. “The guy’s ahead in the polls. Who am I supposed to be worried about — Nikki Haley?”
In Christie’s view, all the talk about lanes is pundit puffery. “There is one lane, and he’s in the front of it. And if you want to win, you better go right through him.”
“The reason I’m going after Trump is two-fold. One, he deserves it. And two, it’s the way to win.”
In reality, “going through Trump” isn’t the only way to win. In fact, targeting Trump and alienating many of the 79 million Americans who voted for him — including the vast majority of New Hampshire Republicans — is one of the least likely ways to win.
Polls show the vast majority of Republicans support Trump and aren’t interested in hearing him being attacked. To many GOP primary voters, people who criticize Trump sound like Democrats. From a pragmatic political standpoint, there’s a strong argument in favor of the DeSantis approach: Fight back when Trump attacks, but don’t do anything to alienate Trump loyalists– like Christie doing his impression of Trump promising to build the wall (“I’m going to build the most amazing wonderful wall, and Mexico is going to pay for it.”) and mocking his failure.
It was funny, but how does it win GOP primary votes?
A 15-year-old in the NHIOP audience picked up on the paradox. He asked Christie how he planned to win over Trump voters “when you don’t seem to be appealing to the larger [group of] Republican voters?”
“I’m glad you’re 15 so you can’t vote,” Christie joked. But his question is serious, and the governor never gave a fully satisfying answer. “The way I’m going to appeal to any voter in New Hampshire is to make the case I can make,” Christie said. “I don’t have a specific strategy. I’m just going to be myself.”
Which means he’s a lot of fun to watch.
“If you are in search of the perfect candidate, it is time for you to leave. I am not it,” Christie told the crowd. Then he warned of candidates who claim perfection.
“Beware of the leader who has never made a mistake, never done anything wrong, or when something goes wrong, it’s always someone else’s fault. Or has never lost,” Christie said as the crowd began to chuckle.
“I lost. You people did that to me in 2016,” he said to laughs.
“Beware a leader like that because he believes America’s greatness resides in the mirror he’s looking at,” Christie said. And then, after scolding his fellow GOP candidates for refusing to utter the frontrunner’s name (“It’s ‘Voldemort’ time, everybody”), he laid it out:
“Let me be clear, in case I have not been already: The person I am talking about, who’s obsessed with the mirror, who never admits a mistake, who never admits a fault, who always finds someone else and something else to blame for whatever goes wrong but finds every reason to take credit for anything that goes right, is Donald Trump.”
Christie also offered a rant mocking Trump for doing something no one had ever done before: Lose an election to Joe Biden.
Pointing out that Biden “ran for president three times and never won,” Christie added, “[Biden] wouldn’t be in office if weren’t for Trump. Joe Biden never beat anyone outside the state of Delaware except for one guy: Donald J. Trump.”
Christie also hit Trump, and his family, on the issue of character.
“The grift from this family is breathtaking,” Christie said. “It’s breathtaking. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Kushner walk out of the White House and months later get $2 billion from the Saudis?”
“We can’t dismiss the question of character anymore,” Christie added. “If we do, we get what we deserve.”
Christie acknowledged that Trump brought a showbiz spark to the campaign trail in 2016, and of course, Christie backed him at the time, too. But it’s time to move on.
“Eight years ago it was amusing. Eight years ago, you were entertained. I forgive you,” Christie said to laughter. “But it ain’t funny anymore.”
Christie’s performance Tuesday night was reminiscent of Trump’s early days on the campaign trail. He was having fun. Getting laughs. Taking some risks.
Trump, on the other hand, resembles comedian Lenny Bruce in his litigious last days, re-litigating his court cases and airing his grievances.
Chris Christie is going to have a lot of fun traveling across New Hampshire on the campaign trail. When was the last time anyone said the same about Donald Trump?