The emergence of Chris Christie as one of America’s most popular national figures comes as a godsend to the Republican Party. Having angrily turned down every opportunity to compromise with an electorate that spurned them a year ago, they now see the enticing chance, in the form of Christie’s all-but-declared presidential candidacy, to right their course without veering left. “The road to Republican political redemption may well run through Trenton, N.J,” says Politico’s Ben White. Savvy operative Ralph Reed, whose ties run from the Grover Norquists of the party to its Christian wing, gave the governor his blessing, seemingly paving the way for Christie to clear the party’s ever-more-stringent ideological purity tests. Christie used his acceptance speech to establish the themes for this run, repeatedly highlighting his support from Democratic constituencies and his record of cutting taxes and spending.
There is only one flaw with the plan: Shepherding Christie through a competitive Republican primary will be vastly more difficult than anybody seems to be figuring at the moment. Four basic, interrelated problems stand between Christie and the 2016 nomination:
1. His ideological deviations are not fake. They’re real. Christie has openly endorsed gun control, called for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and conceded the legitimacy of climate science (“But when you have over 90 percent of the world’s scientists who have studied this stating that climate change is occurring and that humans play a contributing role it’s time to defer to the experts.”)
The largest, and least appreciated, of Christie’s betrayals of party doctrine is his decision to participate in the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare. Some other Republican governors have made the same decision, but they have all faced unrelenting and bitter opposition from legislators of their party and conservative activists. Unyielding hatred to every aspect of Obamacare, regardless of its practical impact, has become the main doctrinal tenet of conservative thought. That alone could potentially disqualify him.
2. Christie’s popularity is somewhat fluky. Christie has some real political talent. But he has benefited from his juxtaposition against a corrupt, divided, ineffectual state Democratic Party that consistently allowed him to claim the good government high ground. Even so, Christie’s approval ratings hovered in the low- to mid-fifties, until he achieved beatification through Hurricane Sandy.
Christie benefited in two ways from Sandy. One was through the kind of active, sleeves-rolled-up response to disaster that can lend politicians stratospheric approval (like the sort Rudy Giuliani won after 9/11, and sought, unsuccessfully, to leverage into higher office). Second, and more significantly, Christie defined himself as above partisanship by metaphorically and literally embracing President Obama.
In a bitterly partisan era, Christie’s cooperation and apparently warm personal relations with Obama made him a uniquely appealing figure. In particular, it is the key to his lofty standing in the African-American community: In pointed contrast to the ceaseless rage and contempt displayed by his party, Christie treated the nation’s first black president with open respect and affinity.
Of course, having safely won reelection, Christie can undertake a campaign of vilification against Obama. He’ll have to – the taint of collaboration with the hated Obama, if not scrubbed away, would prove as fatal as Joe Lieberman’s kiss proved to his plane crash of a presidential campaign in 2004.
But in so doing, he’ll undercut the bipartisan appeal that is the source of his national standing, eroding the incentive for party elites to rally around him as the sole electable nominee. It’s not an impossible line to walk, but it will require a very deft touch.
3. Christie lacks a deft touch. The Christie method for retaining the goodwill of his party has been: Whatever he loses through policy squishiness, he wins back in personal abuse. In the past, I have heavily discounted the possibility that this kind of style can translate beyond New Jersey. It is possible that I am underselling Christie’s personal appeal in states that have not spawned The Sopranos and Jersey Shore. Maybe America is truly ready for a loud, angry man in the White House.
But are Republican voters? They may like the spectacle of Christie heaping verbal punishment upon random Democrats who challenge him. It’s another thing altogether if he gives this treatment to Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, or other fellow partisans. If Christie tries to bully fellow Republicans in good standing, it would seem more likely to confirm the accusation that Christie, not them, is the cultural and ideological alien. And if he can’t use bluster, what tools are available to him? It’s not like Christie can cut legislative deals with his primary opponents the way he did in New Jersey.
It is easy to forget how culturally foreign the northeast is to a Southern-dominated party, and how Christie’s belligerent tone may confirm the worst suspicions about him. Conservative columnist Philip Klein once reported the frequent murmurings of disapproval he found among primary voters when he was covering Giuliani’s race: “One thing I kept running into among voters in early states when covering the campaign was that his background as a New Yorker was a real turnoff and made voters view him as rude and somehow shady.”
4. Christie may actually be shady. Mitt Romney wanted to make Christie his vice-presidential nominee, but took a close look at what the vetters came up with and, my colleague John Heilemann and Mark Halperin report in their new book, promptly changed his mind. Romney’s prudish disdain for Christie’s weight commanded gossipy attention, but the sheer breadth of the potential issues surrounding Christie suggests serious trouble:
The vetters were stunned by the garish controversies lurking in the shadows of his record. There was a 2010 Department of Justice inspector general’s investigation of Christie’s spending patterns in his job prior to the governorship, which criticized him for being “the U.S. attorney who most often exceeded the government [travel expense] rate without adequate justification” and for offering “insufficient, inaccurate, or no justification” for stays at swank hotels like the Four Seasons. There was the fact that Christie worked as a lobbyist on behalf of the Securities Industry Association at a time when Bernie Madoff was a senior SIA official—and sought an exemption from New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act. There was Christie’s decision to steer hefty government contracts to donors and political allies like former Attorney General John Ashcroft, which sparked a congressional hearing. There was a defamation lawsuit brought against Christie arising out of his successful 1994 run to oust an incumbent in a local Garden State race. Then there was Todd Christie, the Governor’s brother, who in 2008 agreed to a settlement of civil charges by the Securities and Exchange Commission in which he acknowledged making “hundreds of trades in which customers had been systematically overcharged.”
That’s ... a lot of potential scandals. On top of all that, the report about Christie’s expenses “raised questions for the vetters about Christie’s relationship with a top female deputy who accompanied him on many of the trips.” That detail, published in the book but not the excerpts, seems very potentially troublesome.
All these potential problems – Obamacare, Obama, Christie’s exotic cultural background, and the swirl of scandal – all feed into each other. Collectively they form the portrait of a man Republicans fundamentally can’t trust.
Am I suggesting Republican voters would never trust Christie? No. Under the right circumstances, Christie could overcome his many hurdles. After all, Mitt Romney also possessed enormous ideological baggage, and overcame it. But Romney benefited from enormous luck: His only opponents were staggeringly incompetent, broke, repellant to the party Establishment, or all three. Romney staggered to a drawn-out victory while running virtually unopposed.
Christie seems likely to face off against real opponents with credibility and money. The case they have to make against him is strong.