Ron Fournier writes that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) “is a potential presidential candidate because his rhetoric speaks to the times.” He argues:
Millions of Americans are being left behind by the new economy; they’re losing faith in institutions that are supposed to protect them, starting with government; they are empowered, thanks to the Internet and other technologies, unlike any other time in human history to enforce their will on failed institutions; and, finally, Americans want answers to the big unsolved problems including the national debt, gun violence, and climate change.
They want their leaders to lead.
Christie represents the gubernatorial wing of his party that, unlike Republicans in Washington, understands that nothing happens in a democracy unless rivals work to find ways that they can both win.
Certainly Christie has cultivated a persona that is unique in national politics, one that seems decidedly unpolitical. He talks in plain language. He doesn’t look like a blown-dry pol. He is funny. In other words, he is an accessible figure to many people, made more so by his role in the Hurricane Sandy cleanup. He seems somehow more real than most of the professional politicians who become, after a while, monochromatic and predictable. However, let me suggest a few caveats to Fournier’s argument with which I generally agree.
First, it is not just rhetoric, but the joining of rhetoric and action that voters want. He got the attention of New Jersyans and conservatives nationwide when he refused to raise taxes and then went after exorbitant health and retirement benefits for public employees. Christie didn’t just talk the talk, he actually carried out what he said he was going to do.
Second, Christie achieved success by doing conservative things in a liberal state. Cutting spending and fighting the teachers’ union, make no mistake, are center-right actions. But Christie was able to explain what he was doing in a common sense, accessible way. Moreover, he made other groups (e.g. teachers unions, previous politicians who made promises they could not keep) the bad guys, not the Democrats whose votes he needed to pass legislation. (Of course he got carried away in his anti-Washington rhetoric, giving the impression he didn’t want careful consideration and weeding out of pork from his Sandy relief bill.)
At times he has married conservative proposals (giving judges the right to deny bail) with more moderate measures (setting up drug courts and mandatory detox programs for addicts). He did so with an eye on a generally liberal electorate. He could not be bothered with the conservative echo chamber.
Finally, in embracing (literally) the president and hollering at the speaker of the House (unfairly, I think), Christie found out that every once in a while nuance and restraint are also necessary qualities. It goes against his grain to bite his tongue, but sometimes it pays to count to 10 before you holler. He can be a little less effusive about Democrats including the president and a little less antagonistic toward Republicans in Washington trying to do what he is doing at the state level.
If he wants to serve his state well and keep his 2016 options open he should, going forward, be wary of sounding like a yell leader for the Democrats. He should recall who put the pork in the Sandy relief plan and which party is refusing to do the things he did (e.g. curb spending). It’s a tricky business being a bipartisan can-do governor at home and a staunch conservative nationally, especially when you need the federal government’s help.
There are several opportunities he can take that meet his dual goals of defending New Jersyans and bolstering his standing with Republicans nationwide. If he wants to be president someday he’ll need to show he can balance competing demands.
First, he should take a stand on Chuck Hagel. It is his business as governor to defend the large number of Jewish voters defamed by Hagel’s accusations of dual loyalty. (Should anyone be confused about the amount of evidence that Hagel harbors such views take a look here and here.) It is his business to castigate the president and his nominee for planning to devastate defense, which certainly will impact New Jersey’s economy.
Second, he should make corporate welfare in New Jersey and nationally his issue. It would fit his blue-collar persona and his fiscal sobriety if he championed the elimination of green energy and oil subsidies alike and the breakup of too-big-to-fail banks. Both are conservative ideas that seek to foster free and fair markets where neither government nor oligopolistic private firms work to the detriment of ordinary voters.
And lastly, in an election that is likely to be a walk-away Christie should nevertheless set the example and get some practice in reaching out to voters who aren’t traditionally Republicans. This includes not only minorities and women but urban Democrats. In doing so he might begin crafting a national agenda that speaks to all Americans and explains why conservatism benefits everyone.