Many years ago, New York Times columnist Russell Baker invented the oracle known as the "Great Mentioner"--who makes politicians presidential contenders simply by mentioning their names. William Safire later took up Baker's mantle, channeling the Great Mentioner throughout his illustrious career.
Baker is retired, and Safire is no longer with us. But if the recent buzz is any indication, the Great Mentioner lives on, and he has a new name on his lips: Chris Christie.
The newly minted Republican governor of New Jersey is mentioned everywhere these days. Wall Street Journal columnist Bill McGurn has praised Christie for reviving "Reagan Republicanism--Jersey style." The Weekly Standard calls Christie "the unlikely conservative rock star." National Review declares "Viva Christie!" And in The Post, George Will has called Christie "the Trenton Thunder."
How has Christie captured the imaginations and hearts of conservatives after just 13 weeks in office? Begin with his willingness to speak the truth. He calls New Jersey a "failed state" and has pledged to end "Trenton's addiction to spending." He promises to deliver "smaller government that lives within its means"--and to do so without tax increases, declaring "I was not sent here to approve tax increases, I was sent here to veto them." In the age of Obama, this is music to conservative ears.
More important, Christie is backing up these words with bold action. He put forward a plan to eliminate $10.7 billion from New Jersey's massive $38 billion budget for 2011--a cut of nearly 30 percent. He has taken on the state teachers union, demanding that teachers take a one-year pay freeze and begin contributing something to their generous state pensions and health benefits. When the union balked, Christie called on New Jersey voters to send a message by defeating local school budgets at the polls. Voters responded by rejecting 54 percent of the school spending plans, the most since 1976--giving Christie a strong mandate to push through his reforms.
Christie still has a lot to prove. Recall that just a few years ago, a newly elected governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, enthralled conservatives with his budget-busting rhetoric--so much so that they began talking about amending the Constitution to make way for a presidential run. Today, Schwarzenegger is begging the Obama administration for federal bailout cash--and no one's talking about changing the Constitution to clear his path to the White House.
But the Christie boomlet shows there is a desire among conservatives to look beyond the current pack of presidential contenders for new leadership. The GOP has a troubling tendency to crown the next guy in line. In 1994, the party rode a wave of conservative discontent to take control of Congress--only to nominate its last presidential runner-up, Bob Dole, who handed Bill Clinton a second term two years later. In 2008, the party again nominated its previous runner-up, John McCain, another disastrous nominee.
Today, the next guy in line is the 2008 runner-up, Mitt Romney. Romney is younger and more articulate than either Dole or McCain. But he faces a problem: To win, he will have to campaign against Obama's radical health-care plan--a task made difficult by the fact that Romney enacted a similar plan in Massachusetts, complete with soaring costs and individual mandates.
Fortunately, the GOP electorate seems to be in anti-establishment mind-set. Conservative insurgents are successfully challenging establishment candidates in GOP primaries across the country. If this mood continues into 2012, a dark horse outsider could emerge to win the nomination.
One dark horse is Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who has earned the nickname "Mitch the knife" for his willingness to cut spending and tame budgets. Another dark horse could be Christie--if he is able to deliver the goods in New Jersey.
Christie's fate is largely in his own hands. New Jersey has one of the most powerful chief executives in the country--with authority to rewrite legislation and cut spending with the stroke of his pen. Christie is using this power--for example, freezing $2.2 billion in spending by executive action. His showdown with teachers unions has been compared to Reagan's confrontation with the air traffic controllers union. If he wins this and other battles, he could emerge as the conservative favorite in 2012 or beyond.
Tough medicine can be tough to swallow, and recent polls show Christie's approval rating slipping. But if he succeeds in putting New Jersey on solid fiscal ground, his poll numbers will probably rebound. And if the voters of New Jersey don't want him, perhaps the rest of America will.
Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow at AEI.