“Glory days,” sings Christie’s hero, “well they’ll pass you by.”
Nowhere is that truer than in the Granite State, where the former New Jersey governor has always gravitated in pursuit of his presidential ambitions, and where his fate will be decided again. Ideology and geography always made Christie and New Hampshire a natural pair. This time, they are an especially fitting match: Both find themselves trying to make a living off the past.
As a presidential candidate, Christie is a Bruce Springsteen song, but not one of the upbeat anthems campaigns play before the candidate takes the stage. He’s one of The Boss’s sad, cautionary tales about chances not taken, and things that might have been. Passing on a 2012 run seemed only prudent back in the day. But a decade later, every flash of his once-formidable political skills is a reminder that lightning doesn’t linger in the bottle. You hope that Christie doesn’t sit around thinking about it, but Bruce would tell you that he probably does.
So why is Christie here in New Hampshire, in 2024? The harder you look, the less that meets the eye. Back in June, in a sparsely populated room at the Derry VFW, he tried out a line to explain his candidacy. Presidents go big, he said. But the candidate’s specific ideas — tackling budget deficits, reforming entitlements, avoiding isolationist foreign policy — didn’t sound like the work of a man who’s been thinking big. At one point, Christie gave a shout out to former President George W. Bush, which seemed only appropriate for a politician avoiding the hard realities of where his party has gone since the last time he tried to lead it.
A couple months later in Salem, N.H., though, the candidate had dropped the “going big” schtick. He knew the audience doesn’t come to hear about a Christie presidency. These days, instead of a campaign for office, Christie has a role, and a racket: the crusade against former President Donald Trump.
The role is a time-honored one in New Hampshire presidential politics: The fearless truth teller, the candidate brave enough to tell voters what they don’t want to hear. And it’s true, Christie channels the ghost of John McCain better than any other Never Trumper could. But the harder truth is that these days, people go to see Christie because he will tell them exactly what they want to hear about Trump; he’s not persuading anybody who’s not already convinced. Those other Republicans in need of persuasion? They’re unlikely to check out a candidate so deeply disliked by his fellow partisans. They’re more likely to be heckling him from the street.
The racket, given Christie’s dire circumstances, is not a half-bad scheme. It’s a remarkable thing, how long he has dined out on a debate moment that happened almost eight years ago, when he left Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) gasping for political oxygen the weekend before the New Hampshire primary. This cycle, Christie bills himself not so much as a candidate, but a pinch-hitter. He may not be able to field or throw the speedball anymore, but if you send him to the plate in the ninth, he can still deliver. It’s a comforting thought for those who still think some magical moment will derail Trump.
That’s what made last week’s debate so disheartening for those who enjoy The Christie Show. Not only was he denied the much-anticipated confrontation with The Donald, but when he tried to take down the next best thing to Trump, Vivek Ramaswamy just shrugged him off. The political novice retorted that Christie would be a more convincing truth teller if his entire campaign wasn’t motivated by vengeance and grievance against the man he once served and supported. It was an obnoxious line, in large part because it had the ring of truth. Springsteen teaches that the young owe little respect to what has been, and so it is in presidential politics.
Back in New Hampshire, it’s starting to get dark earlier. And for local activists and close observers, it’s hard to shake that twilight feeling about the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. Granted, the locals habitually compare the present unfavorably to the hallowed days of yore, whether their tastes run to McCain or Eugene McCarthy. But this time, they seem to be confronting some uncomfortable facts.
On the Democratic side, voters seem ambivalent about President Joe Biden’s demotion of their quadrennial event from its traditional first-in-the-nation perch, and elites float the notion of writing in Biden’s name on primary day in the likely event he won’t put his name on the ballot.
The Republican action around the state, such as it is, carries its own set of worries. True, candidates are here frequently, and voters still go to see them. But in between the visits, there’s a blank space that campaigns used to fill. The Christie signs being passed out in Salem, N.H., didn’t actually belong to the campaign. The fine print shows they were bought and paid for by Tell It Like It Is, the super PAC doing the heavy lifting for his bid.
Christie is hardly the only one playing this shell game. It’s exceedingly difficult to find a campaign here trying to build something that connects with citizens and makes its presence known in communities. Smart young embeds looking for grassroots action don’t follow campaigns, they tag along with Americans for Prosperity, or try to figure out exactly what Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has offshored. It’s not the Democratic Party’s nomination calendar that’s the culprit. It’s the nagging sense that the nationalization of the nomination process is reducing New Hampshire to a pretty backdrop, not a battleground. That’s good enough to attract the media and political tourists, come January. But this year, something feels like it’s slipping away. Just like Christie, New Hampshire’s hoping that maybe everything that dies someday comes back.