Like Christie and Obama had any choice but be nice to each other

Party members may be up in arms over their "bromance," but their alliance is one of political expediency


Alex Pareene
May 29, 2013 5:00PM (UTC)

After his important state meetings with Prince Harry of Wales and Nicole "Snooki" Polizi, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made time for President Barack Obama yesterday. The president, a Democrat, visited the Jersey Shore with the governor, a Republican, and they got along so well that the Christian Science Monitor (yes, that Christian Science Monitor) referred to it as "Obama-Christie bromance, Part 2."

And it was apparently adorable, as Michael Schear and Mark Leibovich report:

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At one point, the pair took an unannounced stroll down the Point Pleasant Boardwalk before stopping at an arcade so Mr. Obama could try to win a teddy bear by throwing a football through a tire, in a game called “Touchdown Fever.” After a few misses, Mr. Obama seemed headed for another public athletic calamity, adding to a litany that includes a string of botched basketball free throws on the White House court last month, a horrifically ugly first pitch at a Washington Nationals game in 2010 and a display of bowling incompetence in Pennsylvania during the 2008 Democratic primaries.

But before the football tosses on Tuesday spiraled too far out of control for the president, Governor Teddy Bear himself stepped in and promptly split the rubber on his first try, earning a high-five from the First Beach Buddy.

“One and done,” Mr. Christie boasted, while the guy behind the counter presented Mr. Obama with a fuzzy “Chicago” bear, which he hoisted for the cameras.

They went to an arcade! (Also there are still arcades!) Then they both quoted Bruce Springsteen* and they probably had some saltwater taffy. They couldn't swim because the weather sucked, also presidents aren't allowed to swim in the ocean. (I think.)

So a photo op that was supposed to bring attention to state of New Jersey shore communities after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy (many homes and businesses still haven't been rebuilt) turned into a series of political stories about What It Means that Barack Obama and Chris Christie hung out and enjoyed each other's company even though they are in different political parties and one of them wants to be president in a few years and one of them is president now.

And we're no better. (Though, you know, go visit the shore, if you're in the area.)

This is the issue: Republicans hate it when Chris Christie does this. He is too nice to the president. He is the only famous, currently in-office Republican politician who is nice to the president. Republicans think this hurts their strategy of making the president look terrible and partisan and radical. Chris Christie is popular and considered reasonably conservative (because he yells at teachers and stuff). He is not supposed to be nice to the president.

James Inhofe, Republican senator from Oklahoma, said on Monday, explicitly, that he would not "pull a Chris Christie" (or, rather, that he is "not going to let the White House pull a Chris Christie on me"). Unlike Christie, he will not go out of his way to be civil to the president, just because his state was recently devastated by a natural disaster. Inhofe promises not to put partisanship aside in the face of tragedy -- which, to be fair, is likely what his constituents want.

But New Jersey is a much bigger and much, much more liberal state than Oklahoma. Christie would be hurting his career if he rejected the president, who easily won his state in 2012.

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Republicans who resent Christie are sort of right to do so, but on the other hand, the president just won a national election (and Democrats won more Senate and House votes) and Republicans did not. Christie is being not just personally pragmatic but also representing a type that doesn't really exist but that presents the Republican Party in the best possible light: the pragmatic, bipartisan reformer Republican who just cares about results. This performance was arguably bad for Mitt Romney, but Romney wasn't going to win that election anyway. It's great for the Republican brand in general. Reporters are desperate to write about this type of Republican. People who vote Republican but don't consider themselves crazy right-wingers are desperate to vote for this type of Republican.

Chris Christie cozying up to Barack Obana makes it more likely that a Republican will remain the governor of (large, liberal) New Jersey. It makes it more likely that a Republican wins a New Jersey Senate seat in 2014. It also makes it more likely that a Republican is elected president in 2016, as long as that Republican makes it through the primaries. It may not, in all these cases, be the perfect Republican, but an imperfect Republican is always better, for the interests behind the Republican Party, than a Democrat.

That explains Christie. What Obama's doing makes sense, too, but for him, not his party. The president, like the governor, tells himself, and everyone else, that his responsibility to govern is more important than his responsibility to his party. Conveniently, that belief allows both men to seek good press at the expense of their parties.

The president has never been a particularly enthusiastic political leader of the Democratic Party. In 2009, he declined to do anything to help Bill Thompson, the Democratic running for New York mayor against Michael Bloomberg, the independent sometime Republican. Obama, for some reason, spent years trying very hard to win the respect (and public endorsement) of Mayor Bloomberg, another self-aggrandizing anti-partisan figure. None of this helped the Democratic Party in New York, which, let's be honest, could use any help available. In 2010, the president's massive 2008 election organization had lost funds, staff and purpose, and its failure to mobilize Obama voters to turn out in a midterm on behalf of non-Obama Democrats possibly made the GOP wave worse than it had to be. (It was plenty staffed-up and funded in time for 2012.) Obama would seemingly always rather meet with or hear from a "reasonable" Republican than a committed liberal Democrat.

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The primary victim of Obama's increasingly sad attempts at seeking common ground hasn't been his party, it's really been himself. Because he's just been making his own job -- governing the country -- harder, by promoting the notion that Republicans are reasonable. (He's obviously dialed back on this notion since 2010.) Chris Christie isn't James Inhofe, and he's not an Islamophobe and he's not a Randian, but the more politically successful he is, the better it is for his political party, which is made up in large part of James Inhofes, Islamophobes, Randians and worse. (Also Christie is just a bit Inhofey.)

Obama and Christie weren't really making a grand statement with their tour, obviously. The president was doing his job, even if it also looked a bit like (harmless) transactional politics, following Christie's pseudo-endorsement. What remains to be seen is what happens next year, when a Senate seat is up for grabs, potentially pitting these two best friends against each other ... unless one of them decides to sit this one out.

*Actually, the president said, "I think a friend of mine from here once put it pretty well: 'Down the shore, everything’s all right.'" That's a quote from the song "Jersey Girl," which was actually originally written and performed not by Bruce Springsteen, but by a guy from Southern California. In other words, Barack Obama is now, I believe, the first president to ever quote Tom Waits.

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Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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