These are heady times for supporters of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Christie is heading for a landslide reelection on Tuesday with polls showing his expected margin of victory ranging between 19 points and a staggering 33 percent over Democrat Barbara Buono. Thus is it no surprise that more than a few Republicans are pointing toward Christie’s impressive performance in office as well as his bipartisan electoral appeal as the party’s model for how to win in 2016. Equally unsurprising is the fact that Christie agrees with this analysis. When asked about it yesterday by NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell he responded with characteristic candor:
Asked by O’Donnell if it’s fair to say that Christie, who is widely seen as a 2016 presidential contender on the GOP side, is planning for a message that extends beyond New Jersey, Christie replied, “I’m not planning for it, I just think it’s inevitable.”
In the interview, which aired on “Meet the Press,” Christie added, “I think you people look at elections, and they try to discern things from them about what they mean at that moment and what they mean for the future. And I think that what people are going to see is so unusual for what our party has created in the last couple of years that invariably people are going to draw lessons from it and I hope they do.”
Christie is right about the significance of what he’s accomplished. While many on the right nurse grudges about Christie’s embrace of President Obama last year or resent his sensible rebuke of Rand Paul’s isolationism on foreign policy, his ability to govern as a conservative in a blue state illustrates that the alternative to the Tea Party activist model is one that holds out the hope of general-election victory. It’s obviously premature to anoint him as the frontrunner more than two years before the primaries and caucuses begin, but it isn’t too soon to speculate whether the arrogance Christie showed with O’Donnell is as much of an obstacle to his presidential hopes as the resentment of the right.
The argument against Christie’s inevitability is that he is too moderate to win the nomination of a party that has grown steadily more conservative. The notion that a union-bashing conservative like Christie is a closet-liberal stems from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in which he embraced Obama and then attacked House Republicans who held up a bill that aided the victims. Neither of those incidents will mean much in 2016, but there are issues on which the right will have a bone to pick with Christie. He is clearly out of step with those who regard immigration reform as a threat to the GOP because it will mean more Hispanic voters. And he has also outlined a position on foreign policy that will put him at odds with Rand Paul’s libertarian wing of the party.
Yet the assumption that the Tea Party will have a veto over the GOP nominee exaggerates their considerable influence. As the last two nomination fights illustrated, conservatives have great sway over the party, but there are plenty of states that are winnable for a moderate, especially if, as was the case for Mitt Romney, the bulk of the field is fighting for conservative votes. Nor should the right dismiss Christie as another Romney since his consistent pro-life stand makes him harder to paint as a blue state flip-flopper.
That said, the snippet aired on NBC may reveal the governor’s Achilles heel. The tough-guy persona is at the core of Christie’s appeal, but the brusque manner that he used to become a YouTube star may not play as well on a national stage.
After Tuesday, the rules are about to change for Christie. Up until now he’s been the darling of the press which lauded his ability to reach across the aisle and work with Democrats and his willingness to tell off the right wing of his own party. But once he becomes the putative GOP frontrunner—albeit years in advance of a possible run for the presidency—he will become the No. 1 target of the same mainstream liberal media that has given him so much love. At that point, they will dismiss his ability to get support from minorities and start trying to make the case that the pro-life, tough-on-teachers’ unions Christie is the enemy of women.
This faux “war on women” will be just as much of a fraud as the one the Democrats and their media enablers used to such good effect last year. But they will use Christie’s manner to bolster it. Thus, the challenge for the governor may not be so much his need to convince conservatives that he is not only their best bet to beat the Democrats, but also one of them. Instead, the real danger for Christie may be the attempt to paint him as a bully who is not ready for the presidency. As the last few election cycles show, he wouldn’t be the first Republican to be felled by this tactic. Avoiding that trap may be the real obstacle to his inevitability.