Last night’s speech by Chris Christie sharpened the contradiction that sits at the heart of his public persona. He is known primarily as a tough, blunt talker, and yet on the one issue where America is most attuned to his words, he plays a dainty game of flirtatious evasion. He insists repeatedly, often humorously, that he won’t run, but — oh, look! — here he is in California, at the Ronald Reagan library, delivering a foreign policy-themed speech. That’s not standard-issue gubernatorial behavior, is it? But if you ask Christie about the obvious implication, he demurs, inviting more speculation.
The more important contradictions involve his worldview.
Christie began his speech by invoking Reagan’s crushing of the air traffic control strike. Christie quoted Reagan’s remark, “I think it convinced people who might have thought otherwise that I meant what I said.” This is the Christie that has endeared himself to the Party base — the brawler who kicks Democratic ass.
And yet the heart of his critique of the current administration is that President Obama failed to endorse the Bowles–Simpson deficit reduction plan. Christie presents this as an indictment of Obama. It is a dishonest indictment — Obama knew full well that embracing the proposal openly would extinguish any chance of Republicans joining it, and he later offered essentially the same thing to House Republicans in closed-door negotiations, only to be spurned. But that isn’t the important thing. The important thing is that Christie is advocating a bipartisan deficit plan that increases tax revenue.
The Bowles–Simpson proposal would increase tax revenue by $1 for every $3 of reduced spending. That’s a pretty right-wing plan, but it’s way too left-wing for most Republicans. The current presidential field unanimously indicated that it would reject a plan with $1 of tax cuts for every $10 of spending cuts. Christie’s (implied — but clearly implied) position places him far to the left of the field and the Party consensus.
As Christie is already saddled with numerous issue stances that sit poorly with the right, his apostasy on the Party’s central dogma suggests he may not be the unifying, tea party–Establishment candidate he has been presented as. Christie, should he run, would have many vulnerabilities that Rick Perry could exploit, if Perry can be trained to finish a sentence. What’s more, Christie may well do more to kill Mitt Romney’s chances by crowding the already-limited market for a mainstream Northeastern presidential nominee.
The deeper question a Christie run would raise is what, exactly, Republicans are looking for. The Congressional Republicans have pursued a strategy of opposing everything Obama proposes, even positions Republicans had endorsed. How much of this represents the Party moving substantively right — actually changing its mind about the individual mandate and payroll tax cuts and so on — and how much represents a simple desire to fight Obama? If Christie runs, he will offer a perfect test. Here is a man signaling he wants to sign the same overarching plan for federal taxes and spending that Obama wanted to sign, but he will just be really mean about it.
The Paul Ryan boomlet represented a traditional vehicle to advance radical ideology — orthodox conservatism with a modest smile. Christie represents something different, and unusual — apostasy delivered with a snarl.