Chris Christie: Fearless before hurricanes, meek before policy questions

November 11, 2013
Gov. Chris Christie-CHRIS USHER / The Associated Press
Gov. Chris Christie (Chris Usher/Associated Press)

Chris Christie's tour of the Sunday shows included a lot of tough talk from the newly reelected New Jersey governor but not a lot of straight talk. Watch what happened when George Stephanopoulos tried to ask him whether he supported his own immigration ideas nationally:

STEPHANOPOULOS: One issue that's sure to come up is immigration. You mentioned that you got a majority of the Latino vote in your reelection. And you're for a path to citizenship.

You also said that undocumented students in New Jersey should get in-state tuition rates. Do you think other states should adopt that policy as well?

CHRISTIE: Listen, I think nationally, they have to fix a broken system. And I think this is one of the real frustrations that people across the country have on this and a myriad of other issues is they look at what governors do, like in New Jersey, where we confront problems, we debate them, we argue about them, then we get to a table, we come to an agreement, we fix them and we move on. And in Washington, that seems to almost never happen.

And so I think, listen, everybody has got to sit at a table, everyone is going to have a point of view on immigration, and a myriad of other issues. Well, let's have our argument out publicly, then let's get to the table, come to a consensus and then move on.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So — but do you think that national solution should include both a path to citizenship and that relief on in-state college tuition?

CHRISTIE: I think the national solution has to be — has to be figured out by the people who are in charge of our national government. My job is to fix what's going on in New Jersey.

But I will tell you this, George, we're not going to be able to fix all the things we need in New Jersey until national leaders set a national immigration policy. That's federal law, federal policy that needs to be fixed. It's a broken system, it's not working for the economy, it's not working for the individuals who are affected by it. It's not working for the governments. So we need to get them in a room, the president needs to lead and members of Congress need to do it, too. And if they do that, then I think it will help our economy and help our country if we get to some resolution.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Including a path to citizenship?

CHRISTIE: George, I don't get to make those determinations, the folks in Washington, D.C.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But you get to have an opinion.

CHRISTIE: Well, listen, I can have an opinion about lots of things, George, but we're not going to go through all that this morning, are we? It's 2013 and I just got elected the governor of New Jersey again. So, the fact is, I have already said what I believe, which is it's a broken system and it needs to be fixed. Now let's get to work doing it.

Pretty sure Stephanopoulos would've been happy to go through Christie's opinions on Sunday morning! That was, presumably, why he'd invited Christie on the show.

Health care came next:

STEPHANOPOULOS: There's also been a lot of questions about the president's health-care plan. You called on him to apologize this week. He seemed to take your advice, a couple of days later he did apologize for people who were getting their health plans canceled.

What should he do next? Are you for delay in further implementation of the law?

CHRISTIE: Listen, anybody who has run anything in their lives could see this coming a mile away. And that's why we didn't do a state-based health exchange. We didn't do it because we could see that this whole program was going to be a problem. And so the president's biggest problem right now is he's got to tell the truth and we have seen this in New Jersey. I have told a lot of hard truths in New Jersey that people didn't necessarily agree with, but they give you credit for looking them in the eye and telling them the truth.

So let's get to that point, let's own up, tell the truth about what's going on. Then they can worry about whether he can work something out to fix the problem. But if you're working out of a fantasy that these are not major problems that need to be fixed, and need to be addressed, this is what lots of us have been saying all along about the fact that this was just too big for the government to handle.

So Christie left the construction of his insurance exchange to the federal government because it was clear the federal government would do a terrible job? And the answer to whether the law should be delayed is that "the president should tell the truth about what's going on?" What is that truth, exactly?

It's easy to see why Christie would want to elide these kinds of questions. He's facing, as Ryan Cooper puts it, a "tea party bind." The policy answers that keep his brand viable nationally — like giving in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants — increase mistrust among tea partiers. But answers that tea partiers like undermine Christie's broad appeal.

Christie's tended to run campaigns that are light on policy specifics. And so far, that's worked for him. But as Ross Douthat writes, content-free tough talk won't be enough during the long march of a presidential campaign. "That act wears thin in a long campaign, and it’s likely to wear especially thin in a party that needs a new agenda as badly as Republicans do today."

It also runs the risk of undermining Christie's core brand as a fearless truth-teller. Saying that you were for your immigration plan in New Jersey before you refused to tell people whether you were for it nationally in a brash, confident tone isn't much better than saying it in a halting, querulous one. In some ways, it's worse, as it makes people wonder whether you're more fearful than you let on.

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