Chris Christie at CPAC: Back to the future

He wasn't invited to the Conservative Political Action Conference last year, but in 2014, the crowd cheered for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R). (The Associated Press)

Looking to the future, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie rolled back the clock on Thursday.

Appearing at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, Christie was not the humbled politician embroiled in scandal at home, or the bipartisan governor who talked throughout his reelection campaign about working cooperatively with Democrats in his state, or the Christie whose praise for President Obama in the days after Hurricane Sandy infuriated Republicans.

He arrived at National Harbor in suburban Maryland amid talk of a new Christie whose rough edges had been softened in the wake of the controversy over politically motivated lane closures on the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey.

It turned out that the new Christie is much like the old Christie — the Christie who excited many Republicans during his first years in office with tough talk about budgets and pensions and who flayed the president as a timid and weak leader unwilling to tackle entitlements and other difficult issues.

His performance was designed to begin to rehabilitate himself with his party’s conservative base, which probably holds some of the keys to his hopes of winning the White House someday. The audience saw the early makings of what a Candidate Christie might sound like, should he seek the GOP nomination in 2016.

When he spoke at the Ronald Reagan Library in the fall of 2011, he criticized Obama. When Hurricane Sandy devastated his state in 2012, he had nothing but warm words for the president’s attentiveness. He was almost giddy in his description of himself, a Jersey boy, riding on the president’s helicopter.

On Thursday, it was back to Reagan library days. Christie spoke of Obama’s indifference to the work of the congressional supercommittee that was unable to produce a budget compromise in late 2011 after a debt-ceiling debacle the previous summer. Obama, he said, had never met with the committee.

“Man,” he said sarcastically, that’s leadership.”

At the top of his speech, to remind his conservative audience where he had come from, he reprised some old favorites — how he took on public employee unions to deal with looming pension liabilities and how he called out the firefighters union to give him an even louder round of boos when he spoke to members at the height of the pension debate. “I said, ‘Come on, you can do better than this.’ And they did,” he said.

He touted his antiabortion credentials, remarking as he often has that he is the first person since Roe v. Wade who opposes abortion rights to be elected governor of New Jersey. He took umbrage at criticism of the Republican Party as intolerant, in a question he said he had gotten from members of the news media.

Noting that Republicans had often heard abortion rights advocates speak at their national conventions, he chastised the Democrats for not allowing abortion-opposing politicians to speak at theirs. “They’re the party of intolerance,” he said of the Democrats. “Not us.”

He attacked the media for attacking Republicans. Until the bridge controversy, Christie had received largely favorable national coverage. Time magazine put him on its cover after his reelection, suggesting that he was the GOP’s best hope of winning the White House in 2016. Since then, he has taken a pounding from the media, particularly MSNBC, over the bridge issue.

On Thursday, he fought back. “We’ve got to stop letting the media define who we are and what we stand for. . . . The fact is that we have to take these guys on directly,” he said. “You know I’m shy and retiring and don’t like to speak my mind, especially regarding the media. What we need to start saying is that we’re not going to put up any longer with them defining who we are.”

But if Christie was attempting to curry favor with a conservative audience, he still wanted to do so on his own terms. Republicans can’t be the party of “no,” he said. They have to stand for something and talk about what they stand for. “Our ideas are better than their ideas and that’s what we’ve got to stand up for,” he said.

Christie, who was not invited to speak at the CPAC last year, was well received on Thursday. At the end of his address, some in the audience stood to applaud. But one speech will not erase the doubts and skepticism many conservatives have about him.

The governor was one of several prospective 2016 candidates who spoke. The others included Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.). All of them may have a better relationship with the Republican base than Christie does at this point. Each used his time on the stage to highlight aspects of policy or principles they see as part of a successful Republican message.

In stressing his conservative credentials, Christie reminded his audience of the party’s need to attract more voters. His parting message was one he has talked about often in the past 18 months, which is that Republicans cannot simply become a debating society over purity and principle.

Stick to principles, he said, but then added: “I’ll remind you of one simple truth in this democracy: We don’t get to govern if we don’t win. When we don’t get to govern . . . what’s worse is they do. And they’re doing it to us right now.” What conservatives worry about is how far Christie may be willing to go to do that.

Christie’s calling card as a possible presidential candidate has been the idea that he can win in places where other Republicans cannot. But his star has fallen with the general public since the bridge scandal erupted. No one knows whether the investigations will turn up something that disqualifies him from running.

But Christie also has to deal with resistance inside his party. Winning a general election could happen only if he could clear the first hurdle in a nomination campaign. Thursday’s speech offered a look at how he would try to do that.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
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