Could Chris Christie Become President?

His brash, no-B.S. style has made Americans on both sides of the aisle fall for him. But can the Chris Christie Phenomenon take the Governor Next Door all the way to the White House in 2016?

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.