What Christie Is Thinking

After he delivered the keynote address at the GOP convention in Tampa this past summer, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seemed to be a man who was destined to be president. He had just turned down multiple entreaties from big Republican donors to run for president, saying at a press conference in October 2011 that it was “not my time.” He was adored by the party base, with his brash answers and eagerness to engage at his many town hall meetings endearing him to conservatives. But that all came to an end right before the 2012 election, when Christie’s embrace of Obama and his handling of Hurricane Sandy seemingly ended his hopes for a future in national politics.

But Christie wasn’t done. Since then, he alienated the hard right in a variety of different ways. First, he held a press conference to blast the House GOP for failing to pass a pork-laden disaster relief bill, which he saw as withholding money needed to rebuild his state. Then, while his invitation to speak at CPAC 2013 was in doubt, he accepted money from Obamacare to expand Medicare in New Jersey, against the wishes of conservatives. This was the final blow for the organizers of CPAC, who announced that he would not be speaking at that year’s conference. Christie, when asked about the snub, responded with his trademark bravado. “That’s their prerogative,” he said. “I wish them the best.”

But for many on the right, the final straw came at the reopening of the Jersey Shore on Memorial Day weekend. President Obama, reeling from the scandals surrounding his administration, came to partake in the festivities celebrating the Shore’s recovery from the damage caused by Sandy. The Governor was effusive in his praise of the president’s response to the hurricane, calling it “wonderful,” “excellent” and “outstanding.” For his detractors, this over-the-top celebration of the president was too much.

Christie has fought back hard against the notion that he is somehow disconnected from the larger Republican Party and would play no role in its future. When NBC’s Brian Williams asked him: “If you ran for president as a Republican… what Republican Party do you see out there that would support your candidacy?” Christie’s answer was a classic. “If you are saying to me how do I feel as a Republican,” he said, “I’m a [very] good Republican, a good conservative Republican who believes in the things that I believe in. But that does not mean that I would ever put my party before my state…”

In truth, on most matters of substance, like fiscal policy regarding keeping taxes in check, and social issues, Christie has views, and policy achievements, which are more or less in line with the Republican mainstream. With his presidential aspirations quite evident (his wife said last week that he would “make a great president”), why does he do things that risk continually annoying the conservative base, to the point of totally alienating them?

While it may seem hard to believe, Christie is going down the only viable road available to him to the presidency. While alienating the base doesn’t seem like a good idea for most politicians, Christie, quite simply, isn’t “most politicians.” If the 2012 cycle taught politicians anything, it was that candidates running as the “conservative candidate” will have their every policy position or vote cast scrutinized to see if there was anything that didn’t hold up to what they are representing themselves as being. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, both of whom are inarguably more conservative than Mitt Romney, had their conservative credentials called into question by the Romney camp. If that were the path Christie were to go down, he would stand no chance of making it out of the primaries, and this was true even before Hurricane Sandy.

On many issues conservatives hold dear, Christie does not walk in lockstep with the hard right of his party. For example, among the issues sure to come up in a primary, would be the governor’s history of support for reinstatement of the assault weapons ban, and his complete lack of persecution of illegal aliens during his tenure as U.S. attorney. These are not issues that would endear anyone to the conservative base.

So what’s Christie to do if he wants to be president? In a sentence: Be a winner. Christie’s relationship with the president and the flak he’s been getting from his party because of it have played well in “blue” New Jersey. The latest RealClearPolitics poll average has Christie winning reelection 59–27, an astonishing margin of 38 points. Democrats are worried that his impending win will have down-ballot implications, and some have even called on his opponent to drop out, in order to deny him a GOP legislature. If Christie can coast to reelection by a historic margin, and even win the legislature for the Republican Party in a state Obama won by almost 18 points in 2012, he will be able to make a compelling argument for a presidential nomination.

As a well-connected republican told Katrina Trinko a month ago (reported in National Review), Christie “will be concerned about [winning over conservatives] the day after the election in November.” It stands to reason that Christie will approach the primary, making a different case than Paul’s, Cruz’s, Jindal’s and Rubio’s. Allowing them to all go after the base touting their conservative credentials, thereby splitting those votes, he will be able to make a different argument. Christie’s electoral achievements will be unlike those of anyone else in the field, and having done whatever he can in the time between his reelection and the primaries to mollify the base, he will be able to make the electability argument convincingly. None of this would be possible, however, were he not doing what he is doing now to win reelection.

So, in essence, the only way Christie will ever be able to win his party over then, is if he alienates them now.