N.J. Gov. Chris Christie practices his balancing act

Dan Balz
Chief correspondent November 23, 2013

Chris Christie didn’t like the question.

The question came during a news conference here Thursday morning at the Republican Governors Association fall meeting. A reporter asked the New Jersey governor and three of his colleagues whether they support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants as part of an overall reform plan. “Yes or no?” the reporter asked.

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. View Archive

Christie, speaking first, circled the question for 80 seconds without directly answering. He said the immigration system is broken. He said the broken system affects people and economies in every state. He said inaction is inexcusable. To President Obama and leaders in Congress, he said: “Get to work and start to fix the problems.”

When he had finished, the reporter tried again on the path to citizenship. “Yes or no,” he reminded the governor. Christie replied, “I don’t have to answer the question the way you want me to.” His answer, typical of his trademark blunt, confrontational style, drew a laugh from many in the room.

The exchange neatly highlighted the balancing act that awaits the newly reelected Christie as he looks toward a possible 2016 presidential race. Can he be the candidate who simultaneously expands the Republican Party’s appeal to nontraditional constituencies and satisfies the party base that he is genuinely conservative enough to be their nominee? His non-response on immigration suggested that, after a big reelection victory, he is most concerned now with reassuring the base.

Immigration remains a hot-button issue among Republicans. It has divided elected officials as well as rank-and-file activists since President George W. Bush unsuccessfully pushed legislation that included a path to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants living in the United States. Bush’s effort was defeated by a backlash among conservatives in his own party. Since then, Republican presidential nominees have struggled to make headway with Hispanic voters.

Christie was reelected this month with 60 percent of the vote in heavily Democratic New Jersey. He won because he was able to attract a fifth of the African American vote and half of the Hispanic vote, according to exit polls.

His strong support among Hispanics roughly matched Bush’s success in the Latino community in Texas during his 1998 gubernatorial reelection campaign. It is questionable whether Christie could come close to those percentages in a presidential race. But winning a significantly greater share of the Hispanic vote than the 27 percent Mitt Romney won in 2012 is crucial if Republicans hope to win the White House in three years.

Christie made the point that he can appeal beyond the Republican base. With that mission accomplished, the challenge now is to find ways to show off his considerable conservative credentials. He has worked with Democrats in his state, but he is not a moderate in the mold of other past New Jersey Republicans who were elected statewide. He is opposed to abortion rights and same-sex marriage and opposed a New Jersey initiative to raise the minimum wage.

Still, he makes many conservatives nervous, and there is nothing to be gained from stirring them up by saying he’s for a path to citizenship — any more than there is from offending Hispanics by saying he’s against it. He has been asked repeatedly about the issue since his reelection. Each time he has said the same thing he said in Arizona on Thursday.

Wavering support for reform

In the past, Christie appeared to embrace a path to citizenship as part of an overall reform package. In July 2010, he was asked about immigration on ABC’s “This Week” program. “The president and the Congress have to step up to the plate,” he said. “They have to secure our borders, and they have to put forward a common-sense path to citizenship for people.”

When conservative host Sean Hannity of Fox News later asked Christie about his position on citizenship for illegal immigrants, the governor appeared to hedge. “What I mean by that is, people who enter here legally have to be given a pathway to become citizens,” he said. He added that those here illegally should “get to the back of the line.” He did not explicitly rule out providing them with an eventual path to citizenship without having to return home first.

Christie has since seen the politics of the issue change and change again. He saw growing support for a path to citizenship within the GOP after Romney’s loss to Obama in 2012. Since then, he has seen that support melt away. He has watched Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who a year ago was celebrated as the next great hope for the GOP, as Christie is today, come in for heavy criticism from conservatives for his central role in drafting a bipartisan immigration bill that passed the Senate.

Christie also knows that the legislation’s prospects have faded this year as the bill moved from the Senate to the House and partisan lines have hardened on Capitol Hill. His hope may be that he can avoid getting more deeply involved in the issue until there is some kind of resolution or it becomes clear that there will be none for the duration of Obama’s presidency.

Strong leadership?

Christie’s forceful personality has helped make him a national figure. He may take on his critics — whether politicians or ordinary citizens — more directly than most politicians, but he has tried to turn that potential liability into an asset by saying that while people may not always agree with him, they’ll never doubt where he stands. That’s not the case on immigration. There are now questions about where he stands.

For the time being, Christie can take cover. As he says, immigration is a national problem that requires a national solution from Washington. It is not the purview of governors to set national immigration policy. Not being a governor of a state along the U.S.-Mexican border, Christie can legitimately say this is not his problem — yet.

The politics of immigration are more treacherous for Christie today than they were a year ago — or two or three years ago. Still, it’s useful to remember the slogan emblazoned on his campaign bus as he rolled through New Jersey in the final week of his reelection campaign. “Strong Leadership Now,” it said. Is Christie living up to that claim on immigration?

For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to postpolitics.com.

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