Chris Christie is no moderate

Don't believe the hype. Despite a CPAC snub and hostility from conservatives, Chris Christie is a true right-winger

Published February 28, 2013 12:40PM (EST)

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie        (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

Chris Christie’s reputation as a moderate – even by the standards of today’s Republican Party – is vastly overrated. This is a key point to keep in mind this week, with the news that organizers of the Conservative Political Action Conference have snubbed the New Jersey governor.

The official explanation from Al Cardenas, the conference’s chief organizer: “CPAC is like the all-star game for professional athletes; you get invited when you have had an outstanding year.” Christie, apparently thanks to his loud public criticism of House Republicans when they delayed passage of a Sandy relief package, was deemed to have had a sub-par year.

The prevailing interpretation is that, as Nate Silver put it, this is “an ominous sign” for Christie as he positions himself for a potential run for the 2016 Republican nomination. The logic is understandable: The invisible primary has already begun, the terms of debate within the party are being set, and judgments are being formed by key opinion leaders.  Christie, the thinking goes, has been exposed for holding views that are out-of-step with the conservative movement on the issues it most cares about – and the CPAC snub is a sign that the right is getting ready to write him off.

But I don’t think that’s quite what’s going on here, or that Christie faces anything like the intraparty peril that many are now suggesting.

To start with, we really don’t know what the non-invite from CPAC means, or whom on the right Cardenas and his fellow organizers speak for. For all we know, a handful of organizers are peeved at Christie – maybe over his Sandy griping, maybe over his pre-election praise for President Obama, maybe over something else entirely -- and their views aren’t shared by most of the activists who will be taking part in next month’s conference.

After all, CPAC is an umbrella for a funky array of conservative groups and leaders, and they’ve hardly spoken with one voice in recent years. Remember the loud boos when Ron Paul was announced as the straw poll winner? Nor should we assume Cardenas is a sound barometer of mass conservative opinion; this, after all, is the same guy who was last seen trying to jam Mitt Romney down the throats of resistant conservatives – and who invited Romney to this year’s event. It’s entirely possible that Christie, were he to be invited, would receive a raucous reception at CPAC. (And, in fact, there are conservative opinion-shapers publicly standing up for Christie in the CPAC affair.)

Then there’s the matter of Christie’s ideology. It’s certainly fair to say he’s not cut from the same cloth as your average Tea Party true believer, but how far outside the conservative mainstream is he really? The answer is: not that much, if at all.

In his piece, Silver cites gun control, immigration, Medicaid expansion and Sandy relief as the main sources of tension between Christie and the right. There’s something to this, but the long-term vulnerability for Christie on these issues within his party is hard to see.

Take gun control. It’s true that Christie has voiced support for New Jersey’s existing gun laws, which are among the strictest in the nation. He articulated this in 2009, when he first ran for governor, and he continues to do so now, as he gears up for his reelection contest this fall. But he has not been a crusader on the issue the way that, say, Rudy Giuliani was in New York City in the 1990s. Essentially, Christie has – when pressed – said in muted terms that he won’t repeal the state’s existing laws. And in the wake of Sandy Hook, he’s called for a wide-ranging push for “violence control” – not a new batch of gun laws.

“If all we do is talk about gun control, then we’re missing the point,” he said.

Obviously, this is not hard-line enough for the NRA crowd, but for the vast majority of the conservative movement, it’s probably not a veto point – meaning that Christie will have an opportunity in 2014 and 2015 (after he’s won reelection as governor, which he’s on course to do) to finesse away some of his past comments and mollify conservatives who are generally pro-gun. To them, Christie would be able to say that he didn’t like most of his state’s laws, that Democrats put them on the books, that he was powerless to repeal them, that he didn’t pursue new ones and that he’ll be a pro-Second Amendment president.

Then there’s immigration. As U.S. attorney for New Jersey, Christie took a practical view on the subject, recognizing the value to law enforcement of maintaining cooperative relationships with the undocumented. One particular comment in 2008 – “being in this country without proper documentation is not a crime” – drew ire from national conservatives, and would presumably be recycled by his opponents in a ’16 primary race.

But if there’s one issue where the GOP is clearly evolving in the wake of its 2012 defeat, it’s immigration. We now live in a Republican universe in which Sean Hannity is talking about a pathway to citizenship and urging Republicans “to get rid of the immigration issue altogether.” There will always be some hardcore nativists within the GOP, but here’s betting that by ’16 Christie’s past immigration pronouncements – and those of many other Republicans – won’t matter much to the bulk of the party.

Ditto for Medicaid expansion. Christie announced this week that New Jersey would participate in the implementation of ObamaCare after all. But so what? Seven other Republican governors – including Florida’s Rick Scott, who was one of the most prominent voices fighting the ACA in 2009 and 2010 – are doing the same, a number that will only grow in the years ahead. Generic promises to repeal ObamaCare may still be required for national GOP candidates in ’16; and if so, Christie will surely comply. But if the Medicaid issue comes up, he could tell Republicans that the atrocity of ObamaCare was forced on him and that he was just doing his best to deal with it; chances are, this won’t prompt a rebellion in the party at that point.

Now consider the common ground Christie has with conservatives. Thrice he has vetoed attempts by Democrats to restore New Jersey’s millionaire’s tax, which was imposed by Jim McGreevey in 2004 and killed by Christie in one of his first acts upon taking office. He went to war with public employee unions and extracted an estimated $120 billion in pension savings over 30 years. He pulled the plug on a pricey Hudson River tunnel project, an act that infuriated liberal across the country and bolstered Christie’s credentials with anti-government conservatives.  He is pro-life – a position he held even while running for governor in a culturally liberal state. He is opposed to gay marriage, but has straddled his conflicting state/national imperatives on that issue masterfully, calling for a statewide referendum – something that Democrats now appear ready to give in on. He has reduced spending levels from where they were under his Democratic predecessor.

It’s hard to say what exactly the litmus tests issues are for would-be national candidates in today’s Republican Party. Abortion seems to be one of them, and based on the party’s actions over the last two decades, an absolute resistance to tax increases – particularly on the rich – should make the list too, along with opposition to ObamaCare, and probably gay marriage too.  As recently as last year, a hard line on immigration would also have qualified, but as noted above, the ground is shifting there. On all of these fronts, Christie does just fine. His praise of Obama just before the election surely irks some conservatives and could haunt him down the road. But he’ll have plenty of time to resume Obama-bashing after this fall’s election, and if he’s confronted with the issue on the national campaign trail he could plausibly stanch the damage.

It’s also not as if Christie doesn’t have some impressive allies on the right. One of them that many don’t know about is Steve King, the ultra-conservative Iowa congressman. King may run for the Senate next year, but even if he loses, he still figures to hold sway with many caucus-goers in ’16. And by this point, King and Christie are practically old buddies. They met in 2009 when King gave Christie helpful cover at a congressional hearing that Democrats called in an effort to harm his gubernatorial campaign; Christie then traveled to Iowa for a King fundraiser in the last campaign cycle, and the two have stayed in touch and are said to enjoy a good relationship. That doesn’t mean King will endorse Christie, but he could vouch for his credentials at the very least. And he’s not the only influential conservative with whom Christie enjoys such a relationship.

Moreover, there are signs that business leaders, wealthy donors and other traditional Republican establishment-types are pushing back against the Tea Party-ization of the GOP. This could provide a natural base for Christie in ’16.

And it’s certainly worth noting that for all the noise and trouble true-believers make, the GOP doesn’t have a history of nominating true-believer candidates for the White House. This extends to the Obama era, when GOP primary voters passed over Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum in favor of Romney – despite Romney’s many, many past crimes against conservatism. Similarly, just two years after the Gingrich revolution of 1994 the GOP settled on Bob Dole for its presidential nod. And it went with George H.W. Bush in 1988, even though there were serious (and, as it turned out, valid) reasons to doubt his commitment to the conservative cause. The key for Romney, Dole and Bush is that they were willing to embrace the GOP orthodoxy of the day, even when it meant flip-flopping on past positions. To be viable, Christie will need to do some flip-flopping too, but nothing like the acrobatics that Romney – the architect of ObamaCare – went through last year.

This is all a long way of saying that Christie should be considered a very viable prospect for the GOP nod. He hasn’t passed the ideological point of no return on any litmus test issues, is much more conservative than the “moderate” label that’s frequently attached to him suggests, and will be free after this November to recalibrate himself for the national GOP stage. There’s also the matter of his personality. Political science tells us that this doesn’t matter in campaigns, but I don’t quite agree. His charisma isn’t the only reason Christie rocketed to national political fame over the past few years, but it’s certainly a big part of the equation. I may be a little biased on this, since I began watching Christie up-close a decade ago, but I’ve long believed there’s is something about his style that makes people – especially Republicans – want to like him and support him.

So I’m not reading into the CPAC snub. Christie has considerable potential to win over conservative leaders and opinion-shapers and to set himself up as a serious contender for 2016.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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