Chris Christie's gay marriage gambit: Still hoping to hustle the loons in 2016

It takes real chutzpah to tell fellow governors to fight marriage equality -- when you gave up in your own state

Published July 14, 2014 4:50PM (EDT)

  (AP/Mark Humphrey)
(AP/Mark Humphrey)

I still don’t think scandal-tainted New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has a prayer of being the 2016 GOP presidential nominee. But he’s praying nonetheless. The latest evidence: Christie telling reporters that Republicans shouldn’t give up on fighting marriage equality, even as they lose in the courts. “Certainly I’m not going to, because these are opinions that I feel strongly about,” he told reporters at the National Governor’s Association meeting this weekend.

Now, Christie knows about losing in the courts: the New Jersey State Supreme Court struck down the gay marriage ban there. So did the governor fight back? No, he didn’t.

“When I know that I’ve been defeated you don’t bang your head against a wall and spend taxpayer money to do it,” he told reporters this weekend.

I guess his message to other Republican governors is: “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Back when Christie was the GOP establishment’s favorite, the guy who was going to make Republicans competitive even in blue states like New Jersey, he might have been expected to take a more courageous stance on marriage equality. Christie was the candidate of the big donors who know their party will never again win the White House unless it wins young voters, who care about marriage equality, and Latinos, who want to see immigration reform.

Now that Christie’s hopes have been seriously dimmed by ongoing investigations into New Jersey political payback scandals, he’s got to worry even more about the party’s far-right base if he does run. Hence his gay marriage gambit.

It takes some staggering cynicism to say, hey I didn't fight it in my state, but you guys should fight it in yours.

Christie may be counting on the fact that certain other 2016 candidates seem to have softened on the gay marriage issue, leaving him some room on the right. For now, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, whose son is gay, is the only possible candidate who’s come out in favor of marriage equality. But no less a conservative favorite than Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has indicated some ambivalence about the issue. His 19-year-old son recently served as a witness at a gay marriage ceremony involving a cousin -- Walker and his wife attended the couple's reception -- and when Walker was asked about marriage equality at the National Governor’s Association conference, he insisted, "I don't think the Republican Party is fighting it.”

Walker went on to assure the right, "I'm not saying it's not important. But Republicans haven't been talking about this. We've been talking about economic and fiscal issues. It's those on the left that are pushing it."

Well, Scott, now Chris Christie is pushing it, too.

It’s worth noting that Walker, unlike Christie, has appealed his state Supreme Court’s ruling striking down Wisconsin’s gay marriage ban. So Christie tells governors to keep fighting gay marriage, while he backs off at home, and Walker suggests his party should soft-pedal the issue, while he fights it hard in Wisconsin. Confused yet?

Both men know the issue is terrible for Republicans in national elections. But since Walker, the ultra-conservative Christian right favorite who's got his own troubles at home, has more support with the party’s voting base, he can afford to suggest the GOP lay off the issue nationally. Christie, by contrast, is distrusted by the base, but now can’t count on the support of elites, either.

Ever since the Bridgegate scandal erupted, Christie’s been tacking right -- rhetorically, anyway -- appearing for the first time at a Conservative Political Action Committee conference in January, for instance. It wasn’t crazy: Painting himself as a victim of the lamestream media actually garnered Christie some sympathy on the right. “Frankly, the heat he is taking in the press as a result of Bridge-gate has endeared him to some conservatives,” one conservative leader told the Christian Science Monitor about Christie’s CPAC appearance. “He’s going to need conservatives on his side. This is about mending fences on both sides.”

Personally, I don’t see the religious fanatics who oppose marriage equality being satisfied with Christie’s “I didn’t fight it but you guys should” answer. Sure, they’re aligned with anti-tax austerity fetishists in the GOP, but when it comes to gay marriage, they’re zealots, and conceding to the courts in the name of protecting tax dollars isn’t likely to win them over. But Christie’s going to try anyway. He doesn’t have another route to the nomination.

By Joan Walsh