One of the more idiosyncratic contradictions in Chris Christie’s rise to national fame is that his success has been fueled by a crowd-pleasing outspokenness and yet the question of what he stands for has been marked by broad confusion. Christie is happy to tell you what he believes in any given situation, though he somehow remains, ideologically, an enigma. He is currently grappling with the challenge of “proving” his conservatism even though he has generally governed as a conservative.
This may have contributed to his recent spat with Rand Paul over foreign policy. Christie rarely dwells much on labels, or at least does so less than most politicians with national aspirations. So while his attack on Paul’s stance on national security was par for the course, his generalization–that Paul is representative of a dangerous strain of libertarianism–was not. It was an uneasy step into label-obsessed national politics that will be necessary for him to navigate the Republican presidential primary contests. Why this situation rendered the usually sure-footed Christie a bit off-balance is captured well in a few sentences buried in New York magazine’s lengthy cover profile of the New Jersey governor:
For Christie, the villain is always specific: not government, not socialism, not impersonal historical forces, but one moron in particular—the teachers union, or Steve Sweeney, or in this case Rand Paul, the libertarian ophthalmologist, high-mindedly denouncing government while his state is on its dole. “He’s not the first politician to try to use me to get attention,” Christie said later, dismissing Paul’s slight. “And I’m sure he won’t be the last.”
What Christie is doing when he starts arguments with other Republicans—and it is telling that what looks very much like a presidential run has begun with a sequence of fights—is offering his party the chance to preserve its anger, while trading in its revolutionaries for a furious institutionalist.
A good, and often overlooked, example of this is the issue of collective bargaining. Christie was one of the early conservative governors to take on the public unions. But other governors, like Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Rick Snyder in Michigan, went further by attempting to rein in the unions’ organizing power through collective bargaining restrictions or right-to-work laws.
When Christie was asked about collective bargaining, his response was characteristically blunt. “I love collective bargaining,” he said, later adding: “I’ve said let’s get rid of civil service and let everything be collectively bargained, as long as collective bargaining is fair, tough, adversarial and there’s someone in that room representing you,” he said. There are no molehills, only mountains. Christie wasn’t trying to destroy every last vestige of the practice, and so he had to “love” it.
But there was a good–and simple–reason Christie wasn’t fighting to restrict collective bargaining or take other such steps: Walker and Snyder had Republican majorities in their respective state senates, so they could pass legislation on the strength of Republican votes. Christie has no such electoral advantage; his rhetorical agility is essential to his success because he constantly has to put state Republicans on his back and carry them. He isn’t used to having numbers on his side. He can’t outvote the Democrats, so he enlists the public in an uber-populist quest to overwhelm the political opposition. And that brings us to another point of conflict in Christie’s interaction with the national GOP: the relationship between the states and the federal government.
The most famous issue that pitted Christie against the GOP’s conservative congressional caucus was disaster relief after Hurricane Sandy devastated the Jersey Shore. Christie is an emotional and combatant governor who was in no mood to count nickels while his state was suffering. He saw the House’s reticence to rush through an aid bill because of concerns over pork-barrel spending as callous and miserly.
But his fellow Republicans had legitimate concerns. Why does every bill Congress passes have to shell out wasteful spending intended to protect incumbents? And isn’t the callous move here not to temporarily hold up a spending bill but rather to lard up an ostensible relief bill with self-serving earmarks? Nonetheless, such conflicts are an inevitable result of Republican success: the GOP now controls 30 governorships, and the states’ relationship to the federal government will often mean those governors are put at odds with their ideological allies in Congress.
Today’s New York Times carries yet another example. “Worried about the potential impact on the fragile economies in their states,” the Times reports, “Republican governors this weekend warned their counterparts in Congress not to shut down the federal government as part of an effort to block financing for President Obama’s health care law.” It’s not the supposed squishes, either. Scott Walker is opposed to risking a government shutdown over ObamaCare, as is Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, who declined ObamaCare’s expansion of Medicaid in his state, so he can hardly be considered a willing collaborator on the health law.
GOP control of the House and the majority of state governorships will put the two in conflict time and again. It’s not about conservatives vs. RINOs, or establishment vs. the grassroots, or even internationalists vs. libertarians. There is certainly an ideological component to it, but the greater challenge is going to be how conservatives respond when two undeniably conservative factions are in conflict–and they’re both right.