The real reason the Tea Party hates Chris Christie

It's not because of his supposed embrace of Obama; it's because he acknowledges a role for the New Deal state

Published January 18, 2014 11:30AM (EST)

Chris Christie                           (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
Chris Christie (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

Rush Limbaugh and Tom Brokaw may be sick of Chris Christie’s “Bridgegate” scandal, but the rest of the media most definitely isn’t. Conservatives and Republicans will chalk that up to the media’s supposed liberal bias — and, to be fair, it is indeed hard to miss the barely subsumed glee with which many of the folks at MSNBC and the Huffington Post have delved into the story and all its sordid details. But I don’t think the explanation is simple tribalism and partisanship. I don’t think the tsunami of press coverage that’s completely engulfed Christie would be quite so overwhelming if the politician at its center were another Republican. I can’t picture Jimmy Fallon bringing Indiana’s John Mellencamp on the air to satirize-through-song Gov. Mike Pence’s fall from grace.

No, the reason Bridgegate has so captivated the political class (beyond the fact that it’s taking place in the tri-state area, which is arguably the media capital of the world) has something to do with Christie in particular. It’s the schadenfreude of watching a guy who presented himself as a political rhino — tough and mean, stubborn and strong — as he’s forced to acknowledge, at least for a little while, his own fallibility and his own desperate need to remain well-liked. Granted, this is not exactly a refined and noble pleasure. There’s something more than a little unseemly about reveling in another person’s public shame. But it’s a fallen world we live in; and as far as baser spectacles go, I’ll take it over watching a man, clothed in immense power, berate an ordinary citizen (usually a woman) for daring to challenge him instead of praising his name.

But at the risk of sounding overly concerned about the feelings of a deeply unsympathetic figure, I’d like to caution my fellow lefties against deriving too much joy from the unfolding disaster that is Chris Christie’s 2014. Not because Christie is, as some in the media still insist, some kind of crypto-moderate (he isn’t) and not because his possible transgression is minor (it isn’t) or, as Slate’s David Plotz might put it, simply part of the game. Instead, the reason I’d recommend people on the left think twice about cheering Christie’s demise is because of where he stands on one of America’s fundamental ideological fault lines: the necessity of government. On that issue, compared to Christie’s fellow Republican 2016 presidential competitors, the New Jersey governor and we lefties are less different, more the same.

To a degree, this is about style more than substance. On policy, Christie’s frequently as right-wing as any other Republican — especially when it comes to taxes and women’s health. But when you match Christie’s rhetoric about government up against that of the rest of the 2016 GOP pack, you find that there are crucial differences, and they’re differences that explain why Christie is perhaps more loathed by the Tea Party right than he is even by public sector unions and the liberals who support them. Take his speech declaring victory on the night of his reelection, for example. Describing the situation he inherited from his predecessor, Democrat Jon Corzine, Christie said folks thought government “was just there to take from them but not to give to them, not to work with them, not to work for them.”

At first blush, this might not sound like anything beyond standard politician-speak. But he continued: “four years later, we stand here tonight showing that it is possible to put doing your job first … and get something done for the people who elected you.” The difference in framing between how Christie’s describing his job and how, say, Sen. Rand Paul or Sen. Ted Cruz or Rep. Paul Ryan or even Gov. Scott Walker would describe their job is subtle but important. If Paul or Cruz or Ryan or Walker were bragging about their accomplishments in a victory speech — the moment above all others when a politician can “campaign in poetry,” as Gov. Mario Cuomo once said — they wouldn’t wax rhapsodic about their own management of the state. They wouldn't make the point, as Christie did, that government is there to "give" and "work with" and "work for" its citizens.

On the contrary, they’d say something about “Getting government out of the way” or “Removing government’s barriers to liberty” or “Liberating the American spirit from big government’s red tape.” At most, theirs would be a grudging acknowledgement of the necessity of government, a recognition that much as they’d like to live in a world without an activist state, they’re willing to accept one, reduced to a minimum, all the same. Similarly, while Christie as governor has come to accept Obamacare's Medicaid expansion, and was too smart —and too pragmatic — to continue mounting a doomed bid to stop same-sex marriage from becoming a reality in his state, other top-tier Republicans, the ones the Tea Party actually likes, would more likely flaunt their ideological rigidity and relish the chance to fight a losing battle in the name of true conservative principles.

Beyond a cultural preference from lefties for politicians who are willing to acknowledge the ameliorative powers of the state, Christie's limited but real understanding that government has a positive role to play in its citizens' lives would be, if he were to survive Bridgegate and prosper in the 2016 GOP primary, a rebuke of all the Tea Party nihilism that's mucked up American government since 2010. And while that'd be good for the system on the whole, regardless of partisan or ideological considerations, it'd also make it easier for those of us on the left to make strong and unabashed arguments for actually progressive, forward-thinking policies. (Like these, for example.) In appreciable ways, the conversation would be less about whether government should be eliminated or merely refined, as tends to be the case now, but rather about whether government should do things itself, or merely assist the market in doing them instead.

I think most Tea Party types understand this, and it's why they hate Christie so much. They know that, in general, they're the keepers of a political worldview that's demographically on the decline. They know that GOP elites — the guys with the real money, the real power — are getting sick of their millenarian libertarianism. They know that with each passing day, the myth of Ronald Reagan and the legacy of Barry Goldwater fades ever further from the mainstream of national electoral politics. In their eyes, Chris Christie supports big government, and nominating him in 2016 would ruin their next last chance (it's always the next last chance) to finally unwind the New Deal state. If for no other reason than this, I'll be able to find the silver lining in any possible Chris Christie survival. He's pretty terrible, sure; but at least he sees a role for the state.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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