Yesterday’s exit polls from New Jersey won’t easily be forgotten. They will be cited and repeated endlessly by pundits and Governor Chris Christie’s supporters to bolster his case for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Any Republican who can get 60 percent of the vote in a blue state is bound to become the subject of presidential speculation. But when a Republican who is pro-life and has fought a running battle with labor unions and Democrats over taxes and budgets does so, he parachutes into the first tier of any discussion of future candidates. That Christie did this while winning a shocking 57 percent of the women’s vote (against a female opponent), 51 percent of Hispanics and 21 percent of African-Americans gives him an almost inarguable case for his electability.
But as the emails and tweets that poured in almost as soon as the results were known showed, there is one sector of the Republican Party that isn’t singing hosannas about Christie’s ability to make inroads in constituencies that Republicans have been losing in recent years. Self-described Tea Partiers and other conservatives were having none of it. As far as they were concerned, the hoopla about Christie’s win was nothing more than the GOP “establishment” anointing another front-runner who was certain to lose in the same manner as previous moderate nominees like John McCain and Mitt Romney. Others were expressing disgust and claiming the party’s base would abandon Christie in 2016, something that would offset his ability to win the votes of independents and moderate Democrats. In their words, Christie was nothing more than a no-good RINO, whose nomination would mark another Republican betrayal of conservatives.
These comments underlined the cautionary remarks being made about Christie’s prospective candidacy this morning. He may be a formidable general-election candidate, but his ability to win Republican primaries remains an open question. Yet rather than merely accepting this piece of conventional wisdom, it might be appropriate to ask why it is that the right is so mad at Christie and whether he can gradually win their support, if not affection, over the course of the next three years.
If we’re looking for ideological differences, it’s hard to pin down what has gotten the Tea Party’s goat about Christie.
Unlike most successful blue-state Republicans, Christie is not a liberal on social issues. He’s pro-life and against gay marriage. And as far as fiscal issues are concerned—supposedly the core issue motivating the Tea Party—he seems to be one of them. He was elected on a platform calling for challenging the status quo on state spending and the influence of municipal and state employee unions and he has followed through on his promises. And though due to the fact that he had to work with a Democratic legislature he wasn’t able to push as far on that issue as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, he has his own list of triumphs that nearly match those won by that Tea Party idol. He defied the unions as well as the federal government to nix a tunnel project that would have sunk the state further in debt.
He did challenge Rand Paul and libertarians on foreign policy and security issues this past summer. But the belief that all Tea Partiers—who were mobilized to action by anger about ObamaCare and the stimulus, not by opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the war on Islamist terror—are uncomfortable with Christie’s support for a traditional strong Republican position on foreign policy and against isolationism is a dubious assumption.
As for immigration, something that is a key Tea Party issue, Christie is vulnerable as he now supports a New Jersey version of the DREAM Act and has reversed his position and endorsed an in-state tuition discount to illegals. But he has nowhere near the exposure on that issue as Marco Rubio. This will be one issue to watch to see if he evolves more toward a pro-immigration reform position or reverts to a more popular (at least as far as Republicans are concerned) opposition to liberalizing the system.
What, then, are they really mad about?
It starts with Christie’s embrace of President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy last year, a move that did the governor a world of political good at home but did nothing to help Mitt Romney’s hopes of an upset. That, along with a Republican National Convention speech that seemed to be all about Christie’s virtues rather than singing Romney’s praises, created a narrative in which the governor is dismissed by the right as a self-seeking opportunist who betrayed his party. That may be true, but if the party is looking for a presidential candidate who isn’t a ruthless opportunist, they need to reject virtually every other presumed candidate, including a Tea Party favorite like Ted Cruz.
Others dig deeper and claim he isn’t a true social conservative because although he opposed gay marriage, he eventually bowed to reality and gave up a hopeless legal appeal when his state Supreme Court indicated it would be rejected. Others claim his approval of a law banning so-called “conversion therapy” of gays also shows he’s a RINO. In other words, we’re talking about a conservative who has pushed the boundaries in his own state without ever betraying his principles to win liberal votes (as Romney did with the pro-abortion stand he adopted while running for office in Massachusetts) but didn’t bow to every dictate of the right.
More to the point, some on the right just don’t like the can-do credo he espouses about making government work even if it means working with Democrats. In this season of government shutdowns, which he rightly opposed, some see this as evidence of a lack of principle, not pragmatism. But what they forget is that Christie’s vaunted bipartisanship operated from a position of strength in which he forced Democrats to operate within his frame of reference of reform, not a weak refusal to upset the applecart.
As for the claim that Christie is yet another moderate Republican who can achieve nothing more than a respectable loss in the manner of McCain or Romney, that seems another dubious assumption. Neither McCain nor Romney was Christie’s equal as a communicator and especially as a retail politician. Nor he is another Northeastern Republican doomed to failure in GOP primaries like Giuliani, whose loss was foreordained by his pro-abortion stand.
There are good reasons to doubt whether Christie can win in 2016. As much as he’s been in the limelight, he has never been tested on the national stage before the way he will be if he runs for president. His thin skin and irascible tough-guy personality is part of his unique everyman charm, but that may not wear as well on a presidential candidate as it does on a governor of New Jersey. There are also the unanswered questions about his health that, despite his disclaimers, cannot be entirely dismissed.
But if we’re looking for reasons why Tea Partiers cannot abide Christie, we have to come to grips with the fact that most of this is more about atmospherics than actual disagreements. While his attitude may turn off some conservatives, his ability to win elections as a conservative must open up for them the possibility that this unique politician may be a chance for Republicans to reverse the liberal tide that Obama has been riding the last several years. As of the moment, that is just speculation. But one suspects that as we get closer to 2016, more conservatives will come to the conclusion that they much prefer dealing with his faults than contemplating eight years of a Hillary Clinton presidency.