It’s a good thing he slimmed down because he’s running. The worst-kept secret in politics is clearly now even less of a secret. With his whopping re-election win, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is in 2016 Republican Presidential nomination-seeking mode. The only questions are whether he’ll do it his way (center right), or eventually the base’s way (inch far right) -- and whether he’ll prove to be another Bill Clinton or another Rudy Giuliani.
Love him or hate him, Christie is proving to be a political original. Sometimes bombastic, combative and rude to angry constituents, the TV camera loves Christie whether he’s making speeches, criticizing his party’s uncompromising far right or appearing on Letterman, SNL or in a self-parody video performances. He could have been a highly successful Hollywood comic actor.
But the key fact about Christie is that he has his toe just enough into the stream of 21st century Republican conservatism, so he’s not entirely an “old school” GOP centrist, yet by today’s conservative standards he is a moderate anti-Tea Party candidate. He gets impressive support from Hispanics, women, and African-American voters -- groups the GOP has not only alienated but seems to be working overtime to alienate even more. He infuriated conservatives when he dropped his opposition to same-sex marriage.
Christie seems to reflect the country’s current political center. However, Christie’s biggest contrast with today’s GOPers is that he embraces the idea that compromising with the opposition and building consensus are good -- not signs of weakness or political treason.
“Compromise is not a dirty word,” New Jersey’s Star Ledger reports him saying at a campaign rally. “You’ve got people in Washington DC trying to tell you every day that compromise is a dirty word.”
This report noted that state Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Essex) joked about how Democrats running in the state all bragged about how they worked with Christie. “I do find it funny, governor, that every Democrat running this year, from Cape May to Bergen, now they’re all your best friends,” the paper reports O’Toole as saying.
The Daily Beast’s Executive Editor John Avlon notes “Chris Christie is defying political gravity. His unapologetic center-right governance appeals beyond the base, providing a rare bright spot as the GOP tries to get out of the demographic trap of being the party of old white men.”
Christie is bursting on the national scene when many Americans seem so tired of perpetually angry Tea Partiers and Barack Obama’s style of professorial enlightenment and rousing speeches coupled with flawed governance that contrasts with topnotch election skills. Obama hasn’t proven to be “another” JFK, FDR, Reagan or Carter, but a future President may be called “another Obama” -- and given the health care reform launch fiasco, right now that isn’t a compliment.
The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza compared Christie’s GOP potential centrist role to Bill Clinton’s 1990s liberal-wing-taming Democratic Party role, but comparing 1990s Democrats with the 2013 talk radio political culture and Tea Party dominated Republican Party bolstered by a conservative entertainment media complex is comparing apples and oranges. The bigger question is whether Christie will be another Rudy Guliani who looks good on paper but fizzles in the primaries.
And the knives are out for him -- and not just on the conservative side. The new book “Double Down: Game Change 2012” by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann contains negative opposition research on Christie donated by losing nominee Mitt Romney’s camp (Romney has apologized). Meanwhile, Christie recently got unwanted attention by losing his temper with a teacher, suggesting his thin skin could hurt him on the national stage.
Indeed, Christie’s legendary near-bullying of New Jersey journalists won’t play as well on the national stage or be as possible to pull off when confronting grizzled national reporters. But I’m betting he’ll adjust.
If a politically powerful and popular Christie goes for a full-court press for 2016, a Republican Party that applies litmus tests to its candidates will then have one applied to itself: a rejection by conservative base primary voters of a politically popular Christie because he isn’t Tea Party enough would define the GOP -- perhaps for a generation.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States.