Chris Christie's pig play: Why his Iowa hopes are officially a fantasy

Chris Christie's veto of gestation crate bill is his latest pander to Iowa. But why would he even bother there?

Published December 2, 2014 4:53PM (EST)

  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Last Friday New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bipartisan bill banning the use of gestation crates for holding pregnant pigs. This where you jam the sows into these little crates where they can't turn around or anything, and so their lives are miserable while they're waiting to get killed. There aren't a whole lot of pig farmers in Jersey -- a fact Christie uses to justify his veto of the bill (this is a Democratic stunt) and that animal rights activists use to condemn his veto of the bill (what's the harm in signing it).

"This bill is a solution in search of a problem," Christie said in his veto statement Friday. As the Daily Beast's Olivia Nuzzi points out, that description -- "a solution in search of a problem" -- is, verbatim, the language that the National Pork Producers Council used in a letter calling on Christie to reject the legislation. The National Pork Producers Council is based in Des Moines, Iowa. Iowa, unlike New Jersey, is home to many pigs -- 20.5 million, the most in the country. A lot of those suckers are jammed in crates, supposedly for their own protection.

Christie's veto will please Iowa pork interests. It will also please Iowa Governor-for-Life Terry Branstad, who runs Republican politics in America. Here is Branstad taking some credit for getting Christie to veto the bill, a seemingly grandiose claim that we have no doubt is absolutely true:

According to the Des Moines Register, Branstad said in his weekly press conference Monday that he personally lobbied for Christie to not sign the measure, arguing that people in New Jersey don't understand the issue. [...]

"This is an issue that most people in New Jersey have no clue," Branstad said. "They don't raise hardly any pigs in New Jersey, they don't have farrowing crates. But this is something we do have knowledge of in Iowa, and I give him credit for listening to and understanding that this is something we're very concerned about and that does impact consumers as well because if these baby pigs are crushed and die that means there are fewer pigs and that impacts the price of pork." [...]

"I did share with Gov. Christie my personal experience and my interest in this and that of Iowa Farm Bureau and the National Pork Producers, all of which are headquartered here in Iowa," Branstad said.

Gov. Christie, like many potential 2016 candidates, has a well-documented history of kissing Terry Branstad's ass; Terry Branstad has a similarly well-documented history of welcoming the kissing of his ass. Here is a Des Moines Register gallery of Christie feting Branstad at his "annual birthday bash" in late October. Christie was head of the Republican Governors Association this past election cycle and didn't have a whole lot of free time in his late October schedule. Why would he spend time campaigning for Terry Branstad, who was winning his umpteenth reelection race by a million percentage points? Why would Terry Branstad allow him to waste valuable party resources doing so? What kind of senior adult politician holds an "annual birthday bash"? Well. You know.

And here was the New York Times Magazine's Mark Leibovich reporting on an earlier Christie visit to Iowa over the summer:

 And here was Christie — a tell-it-like-it-is, straight-talking, no-nonsense Jersey guy — telling about 60 members of the media what he really thought. “Governor Branstad is a role model for me,” Christie gushed, referring to his 67-year-old counterpart from Iowa. Terry Branstad, who is seeking his sixth term in November, is hoping to become the longest-serving governor in the nation’s history. And Christie — who referred to Branstad as a “dear friend,” a “legend” and someone who embodies “what public service is all about” — hoped to perpetuate his dynasty. In fact, he even offered to return to Iowa, over and over, “as often as Governor Branstad wants me to.”

Those who short Christie's chances of winning the Republican presidential nomination commonly use the same line: "His personality may work in Jersey, but how's it going to work in Iowa?" This isn't really his big problem, though: It's that his "personality" has lost whatever novelty it once had and has since devolved into shtick, to the point that it doesn't even work in New Jersey anymore.

The narrower question of how Chris Christie could compete in Iowa, though, has a simple answer: He doesn't need to compete in Iowa, and it would be a waste of resources for him to bother.

Iowa -- in GOP presidential politics, at least -- is where the Bible-thumping wing of the party dukes out an internal fight to determine which social conservative it will send forth to lose the nomination. The real candidates concentrate on New Hampshire. The obvious play for a Christie campaign would be to do nothing in Iowa while practically living in New Hampshire. (With a little time in South Carolina, too. South Carolina Republicans literally selected Newt Gingrich as their candidate in the 2012 primary after he pretended to get angry at a television personality. Chris Christie can do that!)

Does Christie think he has some sort of shot of ... winning Iowa? And that's why he's jostling to pick up so many shifts as Branstad's errand boy? It's either that, or he genuinely does believe in sticking it to those pigs.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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