New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gave a vintage performance at a lunchtime interview at the Delivering Alpha conference in New York Wednesday. Depending on where his political ambitions take him, this was prime ground for Christie, a moderate Republican from a blue state: The room was full of some of the wealthiest hedge fund managers on earth, and Christie was, as usual, entertaining, articulate, occasionally combative and always argumentative. CNBC’s John Harwood conducted the interview, which began with questions about his presidential ambitions and wended its way through his economic views, governing philosophy, with a stop at the Bridgegate scandal, a short exchange on his personality and a last attempt to get at his campaign plans.
He did not discuss hedge-fund investing.
Christie deftly turned aside Harwood’s presidential inquiries by saying he wasn’t thinking a lot about it but that he might make up his mind “at the end of the year or early next,” adding, however, that he probably wouldn’t necessarily tell anyone — including Harwood, getting the first of a number of laughs — at that time.
Harwood asked Christie how he would knit together a Republican Party torn between Tea Party populists and business Republicans. “Carefully,” said the governor, getting another laugh. He went on to note that Democrats also suffer their schisms and that the real issue was “Be yourself.”
Christie carefully negotiated issues he would wade in on and those he would deflect. He refused Harwood’s bait of commenting on Hillary Clinton or wading into the question of whether the Obama Justice Department should have gone after more financial figures for the financial crisis. “I don’t know what they [justice] knew,” he said, but added that he understood, as a former U.S. attorney, that white-collar prosecutions are complex and difficult.
On economic matters, Christie stressed the need to reform the tax and regulatory system and to tackle education. He complained about “a stagnant, limp, unimpressive recovery” and blamed the Obama administration for squandering the stimulus on “Democratic constituencies,” rather than spending it on infrastructure. He said that simply “saving” the economy was not enough. Too many Americans don’t feel that they’ve fully recovered, and more needs to be done, he said.
On Bridgegate, the allegations that Christie aides engineered a massive traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge to punish the Democratic mayor of nearby Fort Lee, Christie continued to deny that he had any knowledge of the affair. Harwood pressed him on the connection between his tough-guy personality and the actions of his aides. Christie rebuffed that argument, noting that every manager of a large operation — “like a lot of people in this room” — worries about rogue employees and defending the steps he’s taken since the scandal broke.
“The whole point is that when someone goes rogue on my watch, I’m accountable for that,” he said.
Harwood ended with another attempt, laughing himself this time, to get Christie to reveal his thoughts on a presidential run. Once again, the governor turned him back, noting that he was “incredibly flattered” to be even considered.