“It’s just crazy and I’m tired of dealing with the crazies.”
That was classic Chris Christie, two years ago this month in response to criticism after he appointed a Muslim lawyer named Sohail Mohammed to the New Jersey Superior Court. Christie was fed up with the spread of baseless linkage between his nominee and Sharia law, which is when he channeled Jack Nicholson from As Good as It Gets.
It wasn’t the first—or last—time he’s suggested that crazy be sold someplace else.
In the aftermath of the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary, the NRA aired a commercial that called President Obama “just another elitist hypocrite” for opposing armed guards in American schools while his own daughters get Secret Service protection (overlooking, of course, the unique risks faced by children of a sitting president).
Christie pounced. “Reprehensible” is what he called the NRA ad.
It’s why we like him. Indeed, it’s why he’s become a phenomenon, beloved by regular Joes and celebrities alike. (At the recent White House Correspondents’ Dinner, my conversation with Christie was interrupted by a fawning Tracy Morgan.) He’s what we’ve been waiting for: a no-B.S. politician who refuses to empanel a focus group or put his finger to the wind before telling us what he thinks. A New Jersey-style Republican—meaning a centrist—who is willing to reach across the aisle, even if it means alienating his party’s normal constituencies, to do the right thing.
In the short term, that authenticity will continue to serve Chris Christie well. A Rutgers-Eagleton poll in June charted his 70 percent approval rate; he held a gargantuan $4 million fund-raising edge over a Democratic opponent you’ve likely never heard of (Barbara Buono).
It’s the next step that’s more complicated. Is he too real to be elected president? Will those same attributes that win him plaudits and essentially guarantee his reelection this November ultimately prove to be his limitation nationwide?
That he wants to run in 2016 seems certain, given the election calendar he contrived after the passing of U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg. Instead of scheduling the Senate general election on the same date as his own gubernatorial contest, he set the former for three weeks prior to his own, lest having Cory Booker on the ballot diminish his own margin and lessen his national appeal.
But if you ask me, for the man George W. Bush fondly nicknamed “Big Boy” to become the first New Jersey politician since Woodrow Wilson to be elected president, he’ll need to overcome two major obstacles: his party and his mouth.
Neither will be easy to do.
That the country needs someone not beholden to the extremes is obvious. Modern Washington has never been so polarized. Consider that for the past 31 years, the National Journal has been taking the ideological temperature of the Congress by analyzing select roll-call votes to establish a comparison among members. In its most recent analysis, in 2012, even the most liberal Republican member of the Senate was still to the right of the most conservative Democrat. (The House was just slightly more heterogeneous.)
Resist any temptation to say it’s always been like that—it hasn’t. On Ronald Reagan’s watch in the early 1980s, the National Journal determined, nearly 60 percent of the Senate was comprised of moderates. In fact, there were so many moderate Republicans that they had their own weekly gathering, the Wednesday Lunch Club, with nearly two dozen members, including Arlen Specter, John Heinz, Warren Rudman, Alan Simpson, Bob Dole, Ted Stevens and Nancy Kassebaum. Today? The moderates are missing, and in Congress, cooperation is the new C-word.
But not for Christie, who launched his reelection with a commercial saying: “As long as you stick to your principles, compromise isn’t a dirty word. ... Chris Christie, the Governor.”
Christie’s willingness to reach across the aisle was never more evident than when Superstorm Sandy hit during the final days of the 2012 presidential campaign. Despite the surrogate-speaking he’d done for Mitt Romney, which included delivering the keynote address at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Christie was quick to acknowledge President Obama’s response. (“The President has been all over this, and he deserves great credit.”)
That’s the kind of behavior sure to win independent support in a general election nationwide; unfortunately, it also kept Christie from being invited to the Conservative Political Action Conference in March—and it might come back to haunt him in the Iowa caucuses (where Rick Santorum prevailed in the last go-round).
Which raises the question: Can Christie win a GOP nomination for president while continuing to rebuff the party’s more doctrinaire elements?
The answer depends, in part, on what happens with the GOP itself. When the dust settled from the party’s 2012 loss, Republican National Committee chair Reince Preibus oversaw an “autopsy” that resulted in the release of a 100-page postmortem. The goal was to explain why the Republican nominee had lost the popular vote for the fifth time in the past six presidential elections. Amid the findings was this tidbit: “Debates must remain a central element of the GOP nominating process, but in recent years there have been too many debates, and they took place too early. … [T]he Party should create a system that results in a more rational number of debates.”
But “rational” describes neither the number of GOP debates in 2012 nor their content. What was said in those forums had a devastating impact on the GOP brand and, consequently, the Romney campaign, and could do likewise to Christie should he be faced with the conservative litmus tests. When Christie told NBC’s Brian Williams in May, “I’m a damn good Republican,” he must have been thinking of the party when he came of age in the 1980s, not now. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush has noted that his father, George H.W. Bush—and even Ronald Reagan—would have a difficult time being nominated by the GOP in its current, ultraconservative incarnation.
Chris Christie does have conservative bona fides. His willingness to confront public unions and his fiscal and political reforms have won praise on the right. He’s tried to abolish the Council on Affordable Housing. New Jersey Republicans appreciated his elimination of the Office of the Public Advocate, and he partially privatized the state medical helicopter system. In 2011, Christie targeted public-sector employees in order to fix New Jersey’s crippled pension system, and his adjustments are projected to save the state $130 billion over the next three decades. Plus, in his 2012 State of the State address, Christie resolved “to reduce income tax rates for each and every New Jerseyan. In every tax bracket. By 10 percent across the board.” (That fiscal prudence was forgotten when Christie scheduled the special election to choose Lautenberg’s successor: “I don’t know what the cost is, and I quite frankly don’t care,” he said. “I don’t think you can put a price tag on what it’s worth to have an elected person in the United States Senate.”)
Still, we can already imagine the contents of a Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, John Thune or Michele Bachmann opposition research book on Christie. Ann Coulter might have told Sean Hannity that Christie’s conservative critics “lie” about him to make him sound more liberal than he is (she professes to “have eyes only for Chris Christie”), but some of his positions won’t easily be dismissed by the loyal ideologues who come out in primaries to not only vote for the likes of Sharron Angle (“Second Amendment remedies”), Christine O’Donnell (“I’m not a witch”), Richard Mourdock (pregnancy from rape is a “gift from God”) and Todd Akin (“legitimate rape”)—but also to nominate presidential candidates.
In September 2011, New York magazine proffered “five things conservative voters would hate about Chris Christie.” They obviously left a few off the list, but it hardly mattered: The publication got heavy circulation amongst the already angst-ridden. Christie’s defense of Judge Mohammed received mention, as did his position on immigration: In 2010, he told Politico that America needs to come up with a “clear path to citizenship.” (As U.S. Attorney, Christie also said that “being in this country without proper documentation is not a crime.” And in 2008, Lou Dobbs Tonight correspondent Bill Tucker reported that Christie prosecuted a mere 13 immigration cases over a five-year span, then compared that to the 597 prosecuted in Kansas in that same time frame.)
And honestly, those examples just scratch the surface. Christie’s positions on key issues are often far more moderate—or at least far more nuanced—than those on the extreme right:
- Guns. While shying away from commenting on a federal assault-weapons ban this year, Christie has spoken in support of some forms of gun control. Campaigning for governor in 2009, he told Hannity: “I want to make sure that we don’t have an abundance of guns out there.” And he has opposed an effort to make concealed-weapon permits valid across state lines, saying “each state should have the right to make firearms laws as they see fit.”
- Abortion. During a 1994 campaign for Morris County freeholder, Christie told voters that it was “no secret that I am pro-choice” and admitted to having once donated to Planned Parenthood. While he’s since had the same epiphany realized by Reagan and Romney—he’s now pro-life, with exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother—it’s hard to believe his earlier position won’t be an issue.
- Gay rights. While he disappointed gays and lesbians when he vetoed a New Jersey marriage equality bill in 2012 (he endorsed a statewide referendum instead), Christie did part company with his Roman Catholic faith when he told Piers Morgan that he doesn’t see homosexuality as a sin. And he supports equal legal status for gay couples, saying, “I think we can have civil unions that help to give the same type of legal rights to same-sex couples that marriage gives them.”
- Health care. Christie refused to establish a state-run exchange for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, but he’s breaking with many of his fellow GOP governors by participating in the expansion of Medicaid.
- Global warming. Christie has acknowledged the human contribution to global warming. (“Climate change is real … human activity plays a role in these changes,” he said in 2011.) In his May interview with Brian Williams, which focused on the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, Christie said he is still a “climate-change believer.” That’s sure to cause problems within the GOP base, notwithstanding the banner headline on page one of the New York Times the day after the broadcast: “Heat-Trapping Gas Passes Milestone, Raising Fears.”
Christie is a lot like many Americans on the issues—a mixed bag who defies one-word categorization. Such independent thinking would help win a general election, but it’s a death knell in primary season.
Two previous moderate Republican presidential candidates faced similar conundrums when confronted with a party more conservative than they were. One shifted positions and benefited when his far-right opponents cannibalized one another; the other remained consistent and withdrew before Super Tuesday. There are lessons for Christie in the experiences of Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, respectively.
So what would be his approach?
Would the pragmatist who reached across the aisle when catastrophe hit stand straight-faced and tell primary voters he’d be uncompromising on the budget? I doubt it. Picture Christie onstage back in August 2011 at the debate sponsored by Fox News at Iowa State University. That was the evening Byron York from the Washington Examiner asked Rick Santorum a question that morphed into the notorious “10 for one” debacle:
“Democrats will demand that savings come from a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, maybe $3 in cuts for every $1 in higher taxes,” York noted. “Is there any ratio of cuts to taxes that you would accept? Three to one? Four to one? Or even 10 to one?”
Santorum said no, prompting Fox’s Bret Baier to put this question to all eight of the candidates onstage: “Can you raise your hand if you feel so strongly about not raising taxes that you'd walk away on the 10-to-one deal?” To big applause, every single hand—even Jon Huntsman’s—was held high in the air.
I’d like to think Chris Christie would have kept both hands in his pockets. And that even though he supports the death penalty, he would not have applauded when, at the Reagan library one month later, Rick Perry was saluted for having overseen 234 executions.
I’d also like to think he wouldn’t have remained silent when the idea of a man dying without insurance was welcomed. That came in Tampa, when Wolf Blitzer had an awkward exchange with Ron Paul. At a debate sponsored by the Tea Party Express, Blitzer put to Paul a hypothetical about a man without health insurance who has lapsed into a coma.
“Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?” The candidates stayed quiet, while a few in the audience shouted “Yeah!” Maybe this would have been another chance for Christie to confront crazy, unafraid to incur the wrath of the crowd by exhibiting some reasonableness.
The “let him die” exchange happened on the same night that Rick Perry was booed for having ordered young girls in Texas to get the HPV vaccine. (Perry's action also prompted Michele Bachmann to repeat on the Today show the medically unfounded allegation of a mother who claimed the vaccine caused her daughter’s mental retardation).
Ten days later, Perry’s sinking support was further weakened when he said that those who wouldn’t give a chance to children born here to illegals were heartless.
But, of course, a bigger story in Orlando that night came when a soldier serving in Iraq was actually booed. U.S. Army Reserve Captain Stephen Hill spoke of his own sexuality and wanted to know if any of the candidates would reinstate “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
How would Chris Christie have responded?
I’d like to think he’d have begun by thanking the man for his service. But maybe not.
Christie had his own run-in with a vet, one of a dozen outbursts since he was elected governor. When they take place in front of crowds, they usually bring the house down, and they attract thousands—sometimes hundreds of thousands—of YouTube views. Each has been the sort of encounter that plays well in New Jersey’s hardscrabble political world—but that might not be so well accepted on a wider stage.
Which raises the second major obstacle he faces. Christie’s independence, frankness and brains are assets. But his bombast might be a liability.
One nationally renowned Republican consultant I spoke to recognized Christie as a top contender, but described his looming third-act problem, to borrow a showbiz term: “How will his tough Jersey demeanor wear over time in the rest of the country? The GOP primary will ultimately be decided mostly in the highly mannered South, and the general election is won or lost in Midwestern and Sunbelt suburbs. That is a long way from Passaic County, New Jersey. Whether Christie can elevate his persona from a braying Jersey brawler always looking for enemies to scrap with to a presidential leader with a reassuring and elevated tone is the big open question of his campaign.”
One can already imagine a negative TV spot (like that run by Hillary Clinton in 2008) where a red phone rings at 3 a.m., juxtaposed with a montage of examples of Christie’s intemperance and questioning his ability to deal with Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There’d be lots of tape to choose from. And while there are certainly two sides to each encounter—some of his victims deserved his wrath—at a certain point, the sheer volume of his obstreperousness may overwhelm.
Certainly, no other politician would have told the teacher in Rutherford who complained of not being compensated for her own education or experience, “Well, then, you know what, you don’t have to do it.” And only Christie, a few months later, would have responded to another teacher, in Raritan—who charged that he’d done nothing but “lambaste” teachers—by saying: “I sat here, stood here, and very respectfully listened to you. If what you want to do is put on a show and giggle every time I talk, well then, I have no interest in answering your question. … ” (Christie did then proceed to give a long and substantive answer.)
Loretta Weinberg was his next foil. The state Senate majority leader upset Christie when she sought to link him to Essex County executive Joe DiVincenzo, who’d been in hot water for receiving a pension payment while still in office. Christie, incensed by Weinberg’s “hypocrisy,” implored the media to “please take the bat out on her for once.”
When Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle accused the Governor of misusing state resources by taking state police helicopters across the state, including to his son’s baseball games, he let her have it, too: “She should really be embarrassed at what a jerk she is.”
For another member of the Assembly, the label wasn’t “jerk,” but “numbnuts.” That was Christie’s response to Reed Gusciora, who, after the Governor’s veto of a marriage equality bill, compared him to segregationists George Wallace and Lester Maddox.
“Partisan hack” was once his descriptor for Senator Lautenberg, again generating loud applause. This time the debate was over Christie’s proposed merger of Rowan University and Rutgers-Camden, opposed by Lautenberg.
That merger was also the catalyst for a subsequent dressing-down of a former Navy SEAL. William Brown confronted Christie last March at a town hall in Florence. A videotape of the exchange and published news accounts document the aggressiveness of Brown’s questioning, which prompted Christie to say: “Let me tell you something. After you graduate from law school, you conduct yourself like that in a courtroom, your rear end is going to be thrown in jail, idiot.”
“I’m a combat veteran Navy SEAL, how’s that?” Brown responded before being escorted from the room by police.
There’s a thin line between channeling Warren Beatty in Bulworth and bullying. Drop an expletive once and you’re Everyman. (No one of these instances is itself a game-changer.) Twice, and you raise some eyebrows. But a dozen instances, and counting, might not play so well in New Hampshire.
We don’t elect effete men president (think John Kerry ordering a Swiss cheese-steak at Pat’s), but since the nuclear age began, we also haven’t elected anyone so heavy-handed. Reagan was perceived as resolute; Christie’s temper could give some pause when it comes to entrusting him with the nuclear codes or the ability to commit troops. Bullying could also offend political and trading counterparts, from the British and Japanese to the Chinese and Russians. Maybe his second term as governor will be different. Perhaps a guy who is apparently committed to the life change of getting his weight under control can do the same thing with the other function of his mouth.
This fall, long before Christie has to navigate the narrow-mindedness of his party’s nomination process or attempt to sell the nation on his straight talk, two intangibles will begin to play themselves out: the election of Lautenberg’s successor, and the implementation of Obamacare. Chances are that Cory Booker or some other Democrat will be elected to the Senate in the special election on October 16th, and should any legislative battle come down to a single vote, it will be a reminder to the GOP of Christie’s missed opportunity to appoint a Republican to fill the entire unexpired portion of Lautenberg’s term. That same month, the insurance exchanges under the Affordable Care Act will go online. This is where uninsured individuals, families and small businesses will go to shop for coverage and rates. In a best-case scenario, they’ll be the equivalent of Orbitz.com for health insurance. More likely, the initiation of a mammoth new government program will bring hiccups at the onset, as Penn’s Zeke Emanuel recently forecast in the Wall Street Journal:
“Setting up the exchanges will pose a host of technological challenges, such as digitally linking an individual’s IRS information (which determines a subsidy level) to the insurance offerings in the individual’s home area and to employment data—while simultaneously factoring in Medicaid eligibility. Bugs in the computer software are bound to pop up, and the quality of the user experience will undoubtedly need improvement.”
Any such “bugs” that combine people’s access to health care and their finances could be the equivalent of the recent IRS 501(c)4 scandal on steroids, just in time for the Tea Party to reenergize its base in 2014. Americans may well come to love Obamacare the way they now support Medicare, but it’s doubtful that affinity will mature by 2014. Instead, Republicans will get an added bump in what should already be a strong year for the GOP. Since 1950, the party of a president in his second term has almost always lost the midterm elections. (The exception was 1998, under Bill Clinton.)
The impact on Christie? Against the backdrop of the implementation of Obama-care, we are probably headed for the third national election in a row where the economy and health care are the dominant issues. While there will be stories about previously uninsured individuals now obtaining coverage, and those with preexisting conditions now being protected, and young adults able to stay on their parents’ plans, they could be outweighed by Drudge Report anecdotes concerning the release of personal information into the wrong hands that will be hyped, Benghazi-style, by the right to drive the GOP base in 2014, à la 2010. A big win for the GOP in the midterms will then give conservative stalwarts a case of beer muscles just in time for the 2016 primary process. Their takeaway? Stay the conservative course with a true believer like Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz, not a Northeastern RINO like Chris Christie.
And that’s just what Hillary Clinton is counting on.