On its face, Governor Chris Christie’s decision not to go down fighting the legalization of gay marriage in New Jersey was merely bowing to the inevitable. Though he has always opposed gay marriage and even vetoed a bill authorizing it that came out of the legislature, Christie told his attorney general to drop a planned appeal of a state Supreme Court ruling that had refused to delay the start of gay marriage in New Jersey. Given the unanimity of the court and the wording of the preliminary decision, Christie was right to think that even if he continued to fight it, the court was going to do what the legislature had failed to do: overrule the governor and institute gay marriage. But, as Politico notes, there are going to be some conservatives who will add this decision to a list of reasons why they will oppose a Christie run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
Yet as with the governor’s recent flip-flop on in-state tuition benefits for illegal immigrants, Christie is clearly not approaching policy questions demonstrating any worry about appealing to conservative Christian voters who play a large role in GOP presidential primaries. Indeed, as Politico notes today, Christie may have already decided that gestures toward pleasing that group may do his prospects more harm than good. Even though comparisons with Rudy Giuliani’s disastrous 2008 presidential candidacy are unfair since Christie is far more conservative on social issues than the former New York City mayor, Christie is clearly acting as if the same forces that doomed that moderate’s hopes cannot do the same to him.
To argue that Christie’s decision will enable his opponents to label him pro-gay marriage seems a stretch. After all, Christie has been a firm opponent of the measure and even now says he believes the court was wrong to impose its view on the state rather than to let it be subject to the usual constitutional process for legislation. If anything, this chain of events enables Christie to make an argument about the destructive impact that activist judges have on the country, something that should appeal to conservatives.
There will be some who will claim that he should have gone down fighting preventing gay marriage. But though he has an impeccable pro-life record, he will never outdo some of his prospective conservative rivals in that respect. More than that, Christie may feel that the culture is changing on attitudes to gays so quickly that the issue won’t be a real factor even in a Republican primary. That’s especially true if the conservatives will be battling each other for the same social-issues voters while Christie has, as was the case with Mitt Romney in 2012, little competition for more moderate Republicans.
That said, no one should underestimate the hard feelings against Christie that are brewing on the Republican right. While Christie can rightly claim to be a tough-minded critic of liberals and their institutions, such as teachers’ unions, as well as having governed as a conservative in a blue state, some Tea Partiers seem to think of him as a creature of the left. In a political atmosphere that has grown more toxic as the GOP tears itself apart in the wake of the government shutdown, Christie may well become the hard right’s piñata and, along with Senator Mitch McConnell, their favorite scapegoat for all conservative defeats.
The expectation all along has been that once Christie is safely reelected next month, he will begin the process of drifting to the right in order to set up a presidential campaign. But his gay marriage decision may be one more piece of evidence that Christie has already made his peace with the fact that the right will fight his candidacy in 2016 and that he believes he can beat them anyway.