Chris Christie has built his political career on his reputation as a straight shooter who never waffles, let alone flip-flops. But he’s set himself up for a barrage of abuse from some conservatives after his announcement during a gubernatorial debate earlier this week when he announced that he had changed his position on allowing illegal immigrants to get in-state tuition benefits at New Jersey public colleges. This is a clear departure from his past stands on this issue or on those involving any benefits for illegals. That pretty much guarantees that anti-immigration forces will be accusing him of being a second Mitt Romney should he jump into the 2016 presidential race. But, Christie who is clearly carving out a niche for himself in the center of his party on a variety of issues may not care.
Like his embrace of President Obama last fall in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Christie’s “evolution” on immigration is bound to infuriate many Republicans but it is also good politics in terms of his re-election. With a lead over his Democratic opponent that ranges from the mid- to the high 20’s, Christie has few worries in terms of his chances of getting a second term in Trenton. But the governor also understands that tilting more to the center on immigration probably suits his 2016 plans better than sticking to his previous position on the issue. Though the GOP roster of potential presidential candidates is crowded in terms of those competing for Tea Party and religious conservative voters, the field is wide open in terms of so-called moderates. Moreover, given the rapid growth in the number of Hispanic voters, he may also calculate that distancing himself from the anti-immigrant tone that has infected much of conservative discourse on the issue is exactly what he needs to solidify his image as the most electable Republican in terms of a general election.
Christie’s excuse for his switch on the issue is economic. As Fox News reports, he gave the following rationale for his stand:
“What I always have said is that when economic times got better, that that would be one of the things that I would consider,” Christie said during the debate at Montclair State University, where he faced his opponent, Democrat Barbara Buono, who long has been an emphatic supporter of in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. “It’s time now — given that economic times are getting better and the state budget revenues are going up.”
But this disclaimer doesn’t quite walk back a lot of his previous rhetoric on the question of the treatment of illegal immigrants.
In 2011, Christie took issue with a comment by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a fellow Republican who, during the GOP primaries for the presidential election, said those who opposed giving undocumented immigrants some help to afford college were “heartless.”
Shortly after, Christie said at a meeting at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library: “I want every child who comes to New Jersey to be educated, but I don’t believe that for those people who came here illegally, we should be subsidizing with taxpayer money, through in-state tuition their education.”
He added: “And let me be very clear from my perspective: That is not a heartless position, that is a common sense position.”
Nor did he shy away from directly taking on the question of how this would apply in New Jersey, a state with a large Hispanic community as well as what is estimated to be one of the largest populations of illegals.
In an  appearance in New Jersey, Christie addressed the issue and raised the state’s fiscal problems, but he also noted that he opposed to giving breaks to people who break immigration laws.
“I can’t favor that, because we need to have an immigration system where people follow the rules,” Christie said at the time, “and I can’t in a difficult time of budget constraints support the idea that we should be giving money in that regard to people who haven’t followed the rules, and take that money from people who have.”
This is consistent with his economic rationale as well as helping highlight his claim that New Jersey has prospered under his administration. But it is a clear departure from a stance in which he claimed that all immigrants must play by the same rules.
Nevertheless, Christie is hardly alone in his party when it comes to realizing that integrating illegals into the economy and society makes a lot more sense than pretending they can all be deported or putting up with a status quo in which they remain in the shadows outside of the mainstream economy. Legislation like the DREAM Act has become a litmus test for Hispanic voters. Moreover, given the increasingly strident tone of anti-immigration activists that may well taint the GOP for a generation, having party leaders like Christie start to move away from positions that can be identified with hostility to immigrants makes good political sense as well as good policy.
That still leaves Christie vulnerable to attacks from conservative rivals who will claim he has flipped on the position for political reasons rather than principle. The betting here is that he will handle it better than Romney simply because his abrasive personality and blunt approach to politics will enable him to represent the switch as a matter of common sense and will refrain from the apologetics and rhetorical twists and turns that undermined Romney’s ability to explain his positions.
But no matter how successful he is in selling this point, there seems little doubt that his decision to change his coat on immigration is one more sign that he has 2016 on his mind.