Don’t let it be said that Chris Christie was slow to jump on the Donald Trump bandwagon. Christie had already done the Donald a service by largely avoiding strong criticism of the frontrunner and concentrating his fire on the most electable alternative when his thuggish kamikaze attacked momentarily unnerved Marco Rubio in the debate prior to the New Hampshire primary. That stunt did Christie’s hopeless candidacy little good, but it did deal Rubio a devastating setback and prolonged Jeb Bush’s presence in the race for a crucial extra week. But by announcing his endorsement of Trump on the day after the reality star was hammered in a debate by both Rubio and Ted Cruz, the New Jersey governor provided him with a welcome change of subject just at a moment when he was on his heels.
The Christie endorsement likely won the news cycle for Trump as well as giving the billionaire an aggressive attack dog though one would have thought he performs that service well enough himself. The advantages for Christie are obvious. Trump is far ahead of his remaining competitors and could conceivably wrap up the nomination by mid-March. The prospect of spending the rest of the year sulking in New Jersey where his popularity and his effectiveness have more or less collapsed is a dismal one. But by latching himself onto the leader in the GOP race, he now has a reason to avoid Trenton and the hope of a place on the ticket in November or a major cabinet position if Trump manages to get elected.
The alliance between the two will be analyzed over the coming days mostly in terms of their not dissimilar personalities. Unlike the businessman, Christie has a record of political accomplishment. But they share a truculent style in which abuse of critics and shouting down rivals is their preferred form of discourse.
Christie’s hopes for the presidency were always more of a fantasy since it was unlikely the Republicans would ever nominate someone so alienated from the party base. Then the Bridgegate scandal — which resonated because it seemed in line with Christie’s thuggish approach to political foes — made it hard for him to recapture the momentum he had after his landslide re-election as governor in 2013. But it is also true that Trump’s entry into the race stole a lot of Christie’s thunder as the angry man in the race. Now that they are reconciled, that means the two men are a natural fit for each other.
But Christie’s endorsement is yet another signal to Republicans that what is at stake in the upcoming primaries is the future of the GOP as a conservative party.
It is true that are contradictions between Christie’s past stands on some issues and Trump’s vacuous pronouncements. In particular, Christie was the only one of the Republican hopefuls to seize on entitlement reform as a key issue in the campaign. Alone of those still in the race, Trump is opposed to reform and appears intent on running as a supporter of the status quo in much the same way the Democrats approach the issue.
Moreover, Christie’s approach to foreign policy, though not fully defined, seemed in line with the GOP mainstream belief in a strong American presence abroad to combat terror and defend U.S. interests. Though it would be a mistake to dignify Trump’s chaotic statements about foreign policy as a consistent stand, he is clearly uncomfortable with maintaining U.S. commitments abroad.
Christie also had a more mainstream view of trade policy against Trump’s protectionism as well as less extreme opinions about illegal immigration. But like a good soldier, Christie was already touting Trump as a man who would “put America first” that showed he knew where his bread was being buttered at the moment.
Those differences are causing some pundits to claim that this is the first sign of a rapprochement between the Republican establishment and Trump and that it means Christie will bring some mainstream support to the billionaire’s cause. But the truth is that Christie and Trump have far more in common than they have differences.
More than just their similar styles, Christie has always been deeply uncomfortable with the GOP’s conservative base even on issues — like taxes and entitlements — where he had common ground with them. The reason why most conservatives never trusted Christie went deeper than his embrace of President Obama days before the 2012 election. They understood intuitively that the governor’s dalliance with state Democrats on a host of issues illustrated the fact that he was more of an opportunist than a conservative. Were principles that important to him he would be swallowing hard and backing one of the alternatives to a man that is attempting to transform the Republicans into a populist movement than a conservative party. Just as he only spoke of himself rather than his party’s nominee when he gave the keynote address at the 2012 Republican National Convention, now, too, he is merely thinking of a chance to get ahead.
It’s smart politics and the timing couldn’t have been better for Trump. But it’s no coincidence that a man who had labeled by many conservatives as a RINO has now endorsed a candidate that embodies the phrase “Republican in name only.” That this spells the potential end of the Republicans as a party of ideas and reform rather than Trump’s watered down social liberalism and nativist chauvinism is clear.
That a pair of northeastern moderates should now be in position to seize control of a deeply conservative party with its base in the south and the west is a bizarre turn of events that no one could have predicted. Rubio and Cruz battered Trump and exposed him as an incoherent scandal-ridden demagogue out of touch with the views of most Republicans at Thursday night’s debate. But it’s not clear that will change many minds. It remains to be seen whether conservatives have a sufficient answer to Trump’s coup that will enable them to prevent Trump from sweeping to more victories next Tuesday.