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Christie’s GOP Disconnect

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s temper tantrum about the temporary delay of action on the Hurricane Sandy relief bill earlier this week was depicted in some corners as an illustration of the disconnect between the Northeast and the southern and western base of the Republican Party. There was some truth in that. The bulk of the GOP caucus in the House doesn’t care much about the concerns of Northeast Republicans let alone those of anyone else in the region. That’s just one of many concerns that the GOP must confront as it starts thinking about how to win back the White House in 2016. But despite the party’s failings, Christie’s rant illustrates that the lack of communication is a two-way street.

Like his embrace of President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Christie’s harangue about the failings of his party will play well in New Jersey. Indeed, the shift in recent months of the focus of the governor’s notoriously short temper from union bosses and liberals to right-wing Republicans—and the latter’s criticism of him—has been exactly what his re-election campaign needed. His approval ratings have reached the point where the most formidable Democrats in the state like Newark Mayor Cory Booker have abandoned the idea of running for governor. But if Christie is as serious about running for president in 2016 as many of his fans think he is, it’s time to realize that the conceit that he can be a moderate at home and a conservative in the rest of the country isn’t going to work.

Christie isn’t the first blue state governor to run into this conundrum. Mitt Romney, whose presidential candidacy was famously left out of most of Christie’s keynote speech at last year’s Republican convention thought that it was possible to run to the left while seeking the approval of the voters of Massachusetts and then tack hard right once he was running for the presidency. While he was able to capture the GOP nod on his second try, the tag of flip-flopper haunted his campaigns and undermined his efforts to win the support of both conservatives and centrists.

Christie’s case is admittedly quite different. He was elected to the governorship in 2009 without giving up his pro-life beliefs and became a cult favorite among conservatives after that via YouTube videos in which he told off liberals who had the temerity to challenge his positions.

But unlike Romney, Christie had no intention of being a one-term governor. Though it is possible that approval of his commonsense approach to budgetary matters might have earned him re-election anyway, it’s more than obvious that he decided that the only guarantee of victory is to create some distance between himself and elements of his party that are unpopular in New Jersey. While the hurricane incident could have been explained away as an extraordinary circumstance that was caused more the emergency than any political calculation, this latest example of Christie denouncing Republicans is part of his re-election strategy. The fact that Congress subsequently passed the bill will enhance his already strong position at home.

He will have little cause to regret his attacks on Republicans in 2013 and it’s likely that a smashing re-election victory this November will fuel more Christie for President talk among Republicans who hope his unique appeal is the GOP’s best hope for 2016.

But anyone who thinks his intemperate defense of a pork-laden bill and eagerness to separate himself from his party will be forgotten three years from now when Republicans are picking a presidential candidate is making assumptions that can’t be backed up. As Politico notes, conservatives are starting to realize that while it might have been amusing to watch Christie bully liberals, it isn’t so funny when they are the target. Every instance in which Christie attacks his party will provide fodder to primary opponents who will charge him with being exactly the opposite of his image: a two-faced politician who tailors his message to suit his audience’s tastes. The dynamic that leads Northeastern Republicans to run against their own party is something that is likely to haunt Christie if tries to follow in Romney’s footsteps.