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June 05, 2013 12:58 PM In Defense of Chris Christie

By Ed Kilgore

It seems criticism of Chris Christie’s decision to hold an October special election to fill the unexpired term of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg is drawing a lot more fire from the Right than from the Left. Perhaps that’s because complaints are coming from two separate directions: those who think he should have taken the legal risk of asserting that a special election was unnecessary, leaving his appointee, whether a “caretaker” or a full-fledged re-election-pursuing Senator, in place until 2014; and those who preferred a November 5 special election where the GOP candidate could benefit from Christie’s putative “coat-tails.”

I personally think this latter argument depends on the dubious assumption that Christie’s “coat-tails” have more value to a Republican candidate than the kind of ultra-low-turnout that would accompany a stand-alone special election. But whatever. When it comes to Christie’s national political aspirations, which is the main reason anyone outside New Jersey is paying close attention to this saga, perception is everything.

In that connection, one of the conservative gabbing universe’s most persuasive voices, RealClearPolitics’ Sean Trende, has taken up the cudgels for Christie’s “genius” in taking the route he’s chosen, mostly by knocking down the arguments others have made that he’s dooming himself to disaster in Iowa in 2016 by daring to displease conservative activists.

Trende’s piece is long and detailed, and you can read it yourself if you’re interested. But his main argument is that Christie’s most logical path to a Republican presidential nomination in 2016 is to win by a ginormous margin on November 5—without the distraction of a GOP Senate campaign against minority-vote-magnet Cory Booker, the most likely Democratic nominee—perhaps winning Republicans control of the legislature, and then forget about Iowa (which he probably can’t win under any circumstances) and begin a successful nomination campaign in the more congenial territory of New Hampshire.

Trende’s endorsement of Christie’s election-date decision is conditional and calculated enough that it hardly supports his attribution of “genius” to the New Jersey governor. But I think the basic premise that Christie can only get so far pandering to conservative activists who really want him to be Rand Paul or Ted Cruz is sound enough.

I do have one quibble with the estimable Mr. Trende, though: his argument that Christie shouldn’t get too ahead of himself in thinking about the Iowa Caucuses cites former Georgia Democratic Governor Roy Barnes as a casualty of presidential calculations in his upset re-election defeat in 2002. I’m a big fan of ol’ Roy, but other than one column by Chuck Todd, I can’t recall any serious talk about Barnes as a hot presidential property in 2004. And in any event, Barnes’ risky championship of a change in the state flag wasn’t just, as Trende calls it, a “perquisite for a national bid;” it was also pretty much an inevitable stance for any Georgia Democratic Governor after Zell Miller planted his own flag there back in 1993.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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