Chris Christie isn’t Rudy Giuliani. But what kind of Republican is he?

August 19, 2013

Finish this sentence: The past Republican politician who most closely resembles Chris Christie's positioning heading into the 2016 presidential race is ____________.


Chris Christie.

The most common answer to that question is Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City. Giuliani, like Christie, was a tough-talking Northeastern Republican who had come from a law and order background. (Both men were U.S. attorneys.) For political insiders, the comparison goes further since many of Giuliani's 2008 presidential staff members are now ensconced in similar roles in Christie world; Mike DuHaime was the political consigliere for both Giuliani and Christie while Maria Comella handled communications for both men.

But, "Christie as Giuliani" sells short the New Jersey governor who, ideologically, is not the full-blown centrist that the former New York City mayor quite clearly was/is. Giuliani was not only supportive of abortion rights but also on the liberal end of the party on same-sex unions. Christie is both antiabortion and anti-gay marriage. Giuliani was supportive of some gun-control measures. Christie just nixed a series of gun-control measures pushed by the state legislature. Put simply: Christie is more conservative than Giuliani ever was -- particularly on issues of concern to the GOP base.

So, if Giuliani isn't the right answer for Christie's political analog who is?

"Chris Christie is a governing Republican in the tradition that includes the likes of Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Ford and, yes, Ronald Reagan," said Tom Cole, a Republican congressman from Oklahoma. "He wants limited government, but a strong, activist government in those areas where only the federal government can act -- national defense, disaster relief, infrastructure, et cetera. Frankly that is pretty much where the Republican party has been since its inception."

Left unsaid but present in Cole's analysis is that Christie shares a pragmatic political streak that the four Republican presidents he mentioned -- up to and including Reagan -- also possessed.

Christie put that political pragmatism on wide display last week at the Republican National Committee's summer meeting in Boston. "I am going to do anything I need to do to win," Christie told the gathering in a remarkably blunt moment.

And then there is the populist piece of Christie.  His average Joe-ness is at the core of who Christie is -- from his lambasting of Washington politicians for doing nothing (including members of his own party) to his dismissive attitude toward the politics of his struggles with weight.

Take Christie's response to a question a few weeks back about his critique of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul:

“I was asked a question at a forum in Aspen, and I gave an answer. Now I know that for politicians in Washington, D.C., this is a completely foreign concept. They think there has to be some master plan behind every utterance you make.... If you ask me a question, I give an answer. That’s what people expect from people in public life.”

Ed Rogers, a Republican lobbyist and longtime party strategist, offered this take on who Christie is most like: "I think he is a mixture of Governor Haley Barbour and Governor John Sununu with a dash of the everyman Kevin Kline character 'Dave' from the 1993 movie of the same name."

Added Rogers: "Barbour and Sununu can both go deep on issues and are excellent government managers, just as Christie has proven to be ... and he has 'President Dave's' common touch."

The truth of the matter is that Christie is surprisingly hard to pin down in terms of whom he most resembles from the past of the Republican Party. He is a northeastern Republican but not nearly the moderate (or liberal) that Giuliani is. He is a pragmatist but not in the vein of a former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who wanted the party to overhaul itself in the midst of the 2012 race. He's a real populist, not someone trying to act like regular people a la Mitt Romney in 2012. Here's how one Christie ally described the governor: "Christie's a conservative, but he's not angry about it."

The struggle to create a Christie analog worries Democrats since there's no blueprint for how to run against him if he does wind up as the Republican nominee in 2016.

"He has managed to project a more centrist image, but when all is said and done, I believe he will be able to appeal to right-wing Republican voters," said one senior Democratic political strategist of the New Jersey governor. "Couple that with a winnability message and he is extremely formidable. But maybe Christie’s greatest asset is his comfort in his own skin. This guy really scares me."

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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