There are two ways to look at the practical political effects of Chris Christie’s embrace of Barack Obama at the Jersey Shore yesterday. Both can be summed up in headlines from the event. Yahoo News went with: “Smiles, man hugs and a teddy bear: Chris Christie’s reunion with Obama,” while ABC News chose: “Chris Christie Challenger Barbara Buono Lost Amid Obama Fanfare.”
That is to say, you can focus on the Christie-Obama dimension of this or the Christie-Buono dimension. National political reporters tended to go with the former, as it also opens up GOP intraparty tensions and 2016 speculation. But the Christie-Buono angle is much more germane to the New Jersey governor’s thinking, and it is just as relevant to the potential 2016 GOP primary contest as Christie’s willingness to spend so much time praising President Obama.
Last week, I posted this ad from State Senator Barbara Buono, Christie’s Democratic opponent in this year’s gubernatorial election. And while coverage of Christie’s outing with Obama was still going strong, this pro-Christie ad was appearing on TV:
I noted in my previous post on the race that the New York Times’s characterization of Buono as a “protégée” of the corrupt state Democratic Party bigwig John Lynch was unfair and inaccurate. As is clear from Christie’s ad, his campaign isn’t interested in making that association either, preferring to tie Buono to disgraced former governor Jon Corzine, Christie’s opponent in 2009. Indeed, Corzine has been a recurring character in Christie’s recent ads.
This illuminates the disconnect between conservatives and Christie. Put simply, they are taking Christie’s reelection as governor for granted, and Christie isn’t. Much of the commentary on Christie’s “bromance” with Obama, at least on the right, has been along the lines of: Christie doesn’t need to do this anymore, so he is showing us his true colors–this is who he is. I think that’s based on a faulty assumption, and that’s why I think Allahpundit is off-target when he writes:
Why would Christie, far ahead in the gubernatorial polls, double down with another conspicuously chummy photo op with Obama knowing that he’ll be bludgeoned with it if he runs in 2016? I think he’s simply committing to his national brand. He was always going to have trouble winning conservative votes in a national primary but his post-Sandy embrace of Obama last October and subsequent endorsement of gun control sealed the deal. If he runs now, it can only be as an overt out-and-proud centrist, aiming to scoop up 35-40 percent of the GOP electorate while hoping that Rubio, Paul, Jindal et al. split the conservative vote several ways. Either that or he’s quietly planning an independent run.
Yes, Christie is ahead in the polls right now. But as Buono’s first ad shows, she has such low name recognition that she began the campaign by explaining how to pronounce her last name. (She’s even running a self-consciously “grass roots campaign”–as a Democrat in New Jersey!) The gap between Christie and Buono will likely close as her name recognition rises. It isn’t easy to win as a Republican in New Jersey, no matter who the Democrat running is. It’s easier to win a gubernatorial election as a Republican than it is to win a Senate seat, certainly. But when was the last time a union busting, school choice supporting, tax cutting social conservative won statewide in Jersey?
I think what’s happening here is a compartmentalizing of Christie’s political fortunes. It would be quite difficult for Christie to run for president coming off a reelection loss. Thus when Christie says he’s not thinking about 2016, he’s probably telling the truth: anything that comes after his reelection campaign is quite literally irrelevant. He almost surely believes he has to win reelection to even consider running for president.
Now, that doesn’t mean his embrace of Obama won’t hurt him in a GOP primary. I imagine it will–though how much depends on who else runs and what Christie would do in a hypothetical second term as governor. It just means that he isn’t pivoting to the GOP primaries yet, and certainly not to the general election. The bipartisan Jersey Shore photo op is about clearing the center for November’s gubernatorial election, not about branding Christie for a general election in 2016.
The truth is, if anything Christie did to move to the center was unnecessary, it was his grandstanding over the pork-filled Sandy aid bill. There was no need to call a press conference to shame John Boehner by name and the GOP House majority. There was no need to pretend that conservatives who rightly wanted a pork-free bill were the ones playing politics with people’s lives instead of those whose self-interest overtook their sense of public service and held up the bill to lard it up with waste. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to work with the GOP and the many anti-earmark Tea Partiers in the House to put up a clean bill and put pork-supporters on the spot? And wouldn’t that latter approach have burnished Christie’s Tea Party credentials while also increasing his support among the voters in blue Jersey?
Again, Christie may end up alienating conservatives, but he may also be betting on being able to remind them why they liked him during a second term as governor. That he can’t get that opportunity without alienating them in the first place is the challenge of winning as a conservative in a blue state.