With his impending re-election in “Blue Jersey” evidently assured and his national profile rising, Chris Christie is a formidable presidential hopeful.
If not always a voice of reason, the blustering governor usually sounds sane in a Republican Party where conspiracy, paranoia and extremism reign. His decision to abandon the state’s legal appeal against gay marriage exemplified the canny pragmatism that worries Democratic strategists looking forward to 2016.
But for those enjoying the current civil war within the GOP as a spectator sport, the prospect of a Christie presidential candidacy is promising indeed. Moving toward the center, he is plainly preparing for combat with the herd of politicians — mostly legislators like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan — whose aspirations depend on mobilizing the tea party base. And there will be nothing “moderate” about Christie when he sets to work taking those opponents apart.
His surrender on marriage equality was only the latest in a series of efforts by the governor to distinguish himself from the right-wing fringe that dominates his party on issues ranging from gun control, religious freedom and climate change to the government shutdown, which he excoriated as “by definition, a failure.” Sounding sane and commonsensical, he said, “You know, I don’t think it’s ever good to keep the government closed when your job is to run the government.” Or, as he might bark in a less polite mood, “duh.”
Those remarks not only aligned Christie with the party’s congressional and corporate leadership, but they also emphasized the bipartisan credentials he has touted in his re-election campaign. Further bolstering that campaign theme is the friendly attitude he has repeatedly displayed toward certain popular Democrats, notably including President Obama and Sen.-elect Cory Booker, who got along fine with Christie while serving as Newark’s mayor. Embracing prominent African-American Democrats provides a happy optical contrast with the reliable outbursts of racial ugliness from the Republican right.
None of this will endear Christie to the tea party and fundamentalist factions that presently dominate the Republican Party, but, like the legendary honey badger, he just doesn’t care — and as a strategic matter, he doesn’t need to. Drawing parallels with the last two presidential cycles, Christie and his advisors can easily imagine him triumphing over a divided gaggle of right-wing clowns, just as John McCain and Mitt Romney did. And then, somewhat less easily, they must imagine that he will transcend the limitations of those candidates to win in November.
Certainly, Christie is open to attack on many fronts; his record on women’s rights and reproductive health, his attitude toward the poor and vulnerable in his own state, his misuse of state resources to benefit himself while slashing vital budget lines — are all deeply troubling. Like Rudolph Giuliani, he could find that his bullying style becomes stale and grating. His constant blather about public employees may leave voters wondering whether he has anything else to say. And to put it bluntly, nobody who looks like him has been elected president since the departure of William Howard Taft a century ago.
His right-wing detractors will hardly let him escape the primaries unscathed, if he somehow contrives to win the nomination. Yet in the months to come, should he choose to pursue the presidency, Christie can serve a significant role in his party and his country, rallying the forlorn Republicans who reject the nihilism of his opponents. He will tell it like it is about Rand Paul and Ted Cruz — and they won’t like it at all.
Joe Conason is a nationally syndicated columnist.