By Boyer, Peter J.
Newsweek , Vol. 159, No. 26
Byline: Peter J. Boyer
He showed the GOP how to win in 2012. Now he's bogged down in Jersey. Christie on the call that may never come.
The most consequential vote of the political season may well have been one that occurred last October, around a dinner table in Mendham, N.J. Chris Christie had just returned home from a cross-country trip, highlighted by a speech at the Reagan Library in California, that seemed like a road test for a presidential run. When the family gathered for supper that Monday evening, Christie's oldest son, Andrew, then 17, cut to the chase. "So, Dad," he asked, "what're you gonna do?"
Christie opened the matter to a family discussion, asking each of his four children and his wife, Mary Pat, whether they thought he should run for president. "It was really interesting, because none of them wanted me to run," Christie recalls. His children and wife all said they were ready, if Christie wanted to try for it, but "none of them, around the table, wanted me to run."
Christie himself didn't answer Andrew's question until after he and Mary Pat had put the kids to bed. "I don't want to do it," he finally told her. "It doesn't feel right to me. If I do this, I just feel like I'd be second-guessing myself the entire time I was out there, and I can't do it that way."
The announcement the next day left Mitt Romney as the most viable Republican candidate, and dashed the hopes of Christiephiles everywhere. "People said, 'Do you regret not doing this? You would have dominated this field,'?" Christie says, adding that he does not necessarily agree with that assessment. "Here's what I know about political campaigns: no matter what you map out at the beginning, it's always different at the end." In any case, he says, his calculation was not political but personal. Only two years into his term as governor, he didn't feel ready for a run at the White House; it wasn't yet his time.
Christie's most passionate supporters, ranging from former General Electric chief Jack Welch and Home Depot founder Kenneth Langone to everyday strangers Christie met on the street, insistently disagreed. To them, Christie seemed fated for 2012, not only because his Jersey-guy bluntness promised an effective counter to President Obama's distanced cool, but also because Christie had identified, and mastered, the defining public-policy challenge of this era--reining in the cost of government.
Christie's public confrontations with his critics made him a YouTube star (one confrontation with a teacher has drawn more than a million views), but what made him an important conservative figure was his ability to reframe the debate about the size and cost of government. In Christie's construct, the issue isn't about government services and benefits to the public--the pro-government side usually wins the argument on those terms--but about a government workforce that costs more than the taxpayer can afford. Christie's "fairness" question isn't who should pay how much in taxes, but whether it's fair that public-sector workers have greater benefits, salaries, and job security than many private-sector taxpayers, who are footing most of the bill.
Christie's gift--and the reason he is mentioned daily as a potential Romney running mate--is his ability to argue complex issues in such simple and commonsensical terms that listeners don't mind, or even notice, when he's stacking the deck. A classic Christie staple in town-hall meetings up and down New Jersey is his ongoing effort to reform the state's sick-pay policies. Current law allows public workers to accumulate unused sick pay, which they can cash in upon retirement. "They call them 'boat checks,'?" Christie says. "Now, the reason they call them boat checks? It is the check they use to buy their boat when they retire--literally." He tells the story of the town of Parsippany, where four police officers retired at one time, and were owed a collective $900,000 in unused sick pay. …