It speaks volumes that with the U.S. mired in two wars and a ruinous economy, the most urgent question of national politics in recent days was whether Chris Christie is too fat to be president.
Christie, the corpulent and tough-talking Republican governor of New Jersey, took himself out of the GOP presidential sweepstakes Tuesday, but not before the Beltway pundit class displayed its brilliance by contemplating whether he could be elected as the most obese chief executive since William Howard Taft got stuck in the White House bathtub.
“Perhaps Christie is the one to help us get our national appetites under control — but it would help if he got his own under control first,” opined Bloomberg columnist Michael Kinsley. Pulitzer-winning Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson chimed in by advising the governor to “eat a salad and take a walk.”
So much for the Pulitzer Prize.
Politically, the intense press corps interest in all things Christie was most significant in demonstrating how unsettled the GOP nomination race remains, less than 100 days before the first ballots are cast. In a campaign marked by the rapid rise and fall of a host of flavor-of-the-week candidates — Donald Trump! Michele Bachmann! Herman Cain! — the media feeding frenzy that preceded Christie’s announcement highlighted the anxiety among Republicans that they don’t yet have a contender strong enough to beat President Barack Obama in 2012.
Christie was importuned to run by Republican elites, from Karl Rove to Rupert Murdoch, in search of a candidate acceptable both to the right-wing voters who dominate the GOP primary electorate and to independents who will be decisive in the general election.
In Christie, who combines a blunt personal style with a political record of facing down powerful public-employee unions, they saw a strong Obama challenger to bridge the gap between the GOP’s boisterous Tea Party faction and its establishment wing of donors, policy intellectuals, and officeholders.
The immediate beneficiaries of Christie’s move are ex-Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the current nominal, but weak, front-runner, and Texas Governor Rick Perry, whose early surge has been eclipsed by inept performances in GOP debates and by disclosures about his record, from his stance on immigration to the pay-to-play atmosphere of soft corruption surrounding his administration.
The mere fact that Christie’s potential candidacy emerged as a big story at this point in the race not only exposes key political weaknesses in the current field but also reveals crucial ideological fault lines among Republicans that now may complicate and extend the process of selecting a nominee.
Romney’s record of winning elections in a traditionally Democratic state bodes well for his chances as a national candidate, but he is viewed with deep suspicion by many right-wingers, who see him as a RINO — Republican In Name Only — because of multiple flip-flops on issues from abortion to taxes.
Perry is more acceptable to Tea Party types, particularly those who focus on social issues like gay rights and gun control, but seems flawed as a general election candidate: His denunciation of Social Security, wear-it-on-the-sleeve Christian Evangelicalism, and shallow knowledge of many national issues may play better in Texas than in battleground states like Ohio.
But any hint that either of the top two are trying to move to the political center will be pounced upon instantly by the other half-dozen wannabes still running: Perry was assailed as soft on immigration for backing a program that provides in-state university tuition rates to children of illegal immigrants, while Romney is constantly bashed for Massachusetts legislation that offers universal health coverage.
With the collapse of the Christie boomlet, Republicans now must settle on a candidate from the current field who is moderate enough to win next November but conservative enough to capture their nomination, a dilemma the Democratic policy analyst Ed Kilgore described in the New Republic this way:
“… it’s apparent the Republican Party has become identified with a radically conservative world-view in which environmental regulations and collective bargaining by workers have strangled the economy; deregulation, federal spending cuts, and deflation of the currency are the only immediate remedies; and the path back to national righteousness will require restoration of the kinds of mores — including criminalization of abortion — that prevailed before things started going to hell in the 1960s.”