Pundits blow it again: No, Christie is not the next great moderate hope

The media will want to crown Chris Christie as the GOP's new model centrist. Here's why that's ludicrous

Published November 6, 2013 1:30PM (EST)

Chris Christie               (AP)
Chris Christie (AP)

In the wake of his landslide reelection to the governorship of New Jersey, Chris Christie has got to be feeling good — or as he’d be more likely to put it, he’s got to be feeling damn good. Not only did “The Governor,” as his campaign portentously called him, manage to secure a second term, but he did it by an almost comically large margin. With men, women, whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians — across the board, Christie matched or surpassed the levels of support a generic Republican would otherwise have received. One wonders, in fact, if anyone in the state of New Jersey knows what Christie’s Democratic challenger, Barbara Buono, even looks like. Without the aid of Google, I sure wouldn’t. 

Compare Christie’s landslide to another Republican running to be governor of his state, Virginia’s Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, and the list of reasons for “The Governor” to smile grows longer. Unlike Cuccinelli, Christie managed to transcend his party’s national image and overcome the stigma of being a Republican in a deep-blue state like New Jersey. And unlike Cuccinelli, no one associates Chris Christie with the now seriously unpopular Tea Party, or sees the New Jersey governor as a chief architect of the Republican Party’s so-called War on Women. In a nutshell: Chris Christie, unlike Cuccinelli, doesn’t have to waste his time disassociating himself from Ted Cruz.

Now, in the coming days, weeks and, indeed, years, a lot of pundits are going to look at Christie’s feat and conclude that he’s some kind of moderate. How else could he win in New Jersey? Nurturing that impression is certainly part of the reason why Christie’s team decided to run up the score, waging a vigorous reelection campaign despite the fact that Christie’s triumph was never in doubt. Yet while it’s true that Christie has at times shown an admirable willingness to buck the most extreme elements of his party’s base, it’d be going too far — much too far — to call the man a moderate.

What Christie is extremely good at is implementing what my colleague Blake Zeff previously described as the GOP’s “blue-state playbook.” It’s pretty simple, really. To stay alive in these politically hazardous environs, blue-state Republicans make a show of breaking with the rest of their party -- on issues that may be prominent in terms of media attention, but are actually of secondary or tertiary importance from a policy perspective. So, for example, you get the once omnipresent images of Christie walking side-by-side with President Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation; or you get Christie’s decision to drop a clearly doomed appeal to a judge’s ruling ushering in gay marriage in his state. 

In both instances, Christie ticks off just enough conservatives for it to get noticed (Matt Drudge, for example, is not a fan) but not so many as to actually, materially damage his position within the broader conservative movement. On the real, bedrock issues for modern conservatism — low taxes on the wealthy, cuts to public services and attacks on the workers who help provide them, and opposition to women’s reproductive health — Christie is about as conservative as they come. The smart Republicans know this, and give him a pass for those other few breaks with orthodoxy, not unlike how many Democrats once gave Barack Obama a pass for his once-squishy stance on gun safety, or his cagey answers on class-based affirmative action.

Indeed, as Real Clear Politics’ Sean Trende recently argued, Christie is “easily the most conservative politician elected to statewide office in New Jersey in the past 60 years, and possibly longer.” Trende continued:

The normal Republican blueprint in the Northeast is to run as a center-right candidate on fiscal matters and center-left -- if not left -- on social issues (remember, Christine Todd Whitman opposed a ban on partial-birth abortions). On fiscal matters, Christie has been pretty hawkish, taking on the state’s teachers’ unions, overseeing cuts in spending and lowering taxes. Even on social issues, he has been fairly conservative, especially by Northeastern standards -- he’s pro-life, against gay marriage (though he does support civil unions), and he even cut state funding for Planned Parenthood. This is an unusually conservative overall profile for a successful Republican politician in the region, much less for one of the most successful Republican politicians there in a generation.

Trende's not the only one to notice Christie's conservatism, either. In fact, one of the most vocal proponents of the Christie-as-conservative analysis is none other than The Governor himself. When asked on Tuesday by CNN's Jake Tapper whether he considers himself a conservative or a moderate, Christie replied, "I'm a conservative, and I've governed as a conservative in this state." On that score, at least, The Governor and I are in complete agreement.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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