As 2016 Looms, Christie Skirts Hot-Button Issues

Governor Chris Christie on Monday at the Paulsboro Marine Terminal Wharf construction project in Paulsboro, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
Governor Chris Christie on Monday at the Paulsboro Marine Terminal Wharf construction project in Paulsboro, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who bills himself as a say-what-I-think straight-talker, has been unusually silent recently on some hot-button national issues.

While other top Republicans have been quick to weigh in, Christie has side-stepped questions on the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court ruling, immigration reform and Israel. Some suggest he’s being careful — and letting others in the prospective GOP field for the 2016 presidential nomination get into early brawls.

New Jersey’s Republican governor has repeatedly declined to offer his opinion on the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, which will allow some companies to opt out of paying for morally questionable procedures under President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.

Asked the day after the decision whether the court decided correctly, Christie shrugged, “Who knows?”

“Why would I give an opinion on whether they’re right or wrong?” he added during an appearance on CNBC. “In the end of the day, they did what they did.”

A week later, Christie was again pressed, this time on the decision’s local impact.

“It’s just not something I’m all that concerned about,” he told reporters.

It’s not the only fiery issue the blunt-talking Christie has skirted in recent weeks, even as other high-profile Republicans mulling runs for the White House have eagerly weighed in. Rand Paul and Rick Perry, for example, brawled over foreign policy as the newly demure Christie toured Tennessee over the weekend, and on Thursday heads to politically important Iowa, as part of his duties heading the Republican Governors Association.

In Nashville, Christie gave strong but general, opinions on such matters as immigration and Washington gridlock. But asked for specifics, he offered equally terse refusals to elaborate.

On foreign policy, Christie said Obama should “be speaking firmly and forcefully on behalf of Israel” and condemning Hamas “in the strongest terms and with actions.” But asked whether those actions should include the military, Christie punted: “I’m not going to give opinions on that, I’m not the president.”

Mike DuHaime, Christie’s top political adviser, said that Christie has been “completely unafraid to take on tough, controversial issues.”

He pointed to Christie’s decisions to cut education funding his first year in office, delay pension contributions in this year’s budget and veto legislation that would have reduced gun magazine capacity, despite pleas from parents of the victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting.

“I would say it’s a mischaracterization to cherry pick a couple of times where he basically says, ‘Look, that’s not something I have to deal with. I haven’t thought about it, so I’m moving on,’” he said.

While Christie’s camp insists he’s as outspoken as ever, some observers see the dodges as part of a larger strategy by the governor to avoid weighing in on divisive national issues, especially with key constituencies like women and Latinos, as he mulls how to position himself in the crowded Republican primary field.

As failed candidates from blue states like former New York Mayor Rudy  Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney quickly learned, if he runs, Christie will have to balance courting voters who lean far to the right of those he’s used to while remaining competitive in the general election.

“To a great extent, he’s avoiding addressing things he doesn’t think he has to in the context of, we presume at the moment, him gearing up to run for president,” said David Redlawsk, the director of the Rutgers Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling, who has been following Christie for years.

Chip Felkel, a longtime South Carolina Republican operative who worked on former President George W. Bush’s two campaigns, said it was wise for Christie to take his time and avoid weighing in on issues that could come back to bite him.

“The roadside is littered with would-be candidates who stuck their foot in their mouth on issues that they regretted or not thinking through politically, ideologically or strategically how something they might weigh in on today would affect them,” he said.