Skip to main content

There's method in Chris Christie's madness

By Reihan Salam, CNN Contributor
updated 9:44 AM EST, Mon January 7, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chris Christie has been taking steps that could offend conservatives in GOP
  • Reihan Salam: The governor's actions strengthen his popularity in blue-state Jersey
  • On the surface, he says, Christie's moves would seem to harm his presidential chances
  • Salam: Christie's moves may be shrewd since GOP brand is tarnished

Editor's note: Reihan Salam, a CNN contributor, is a columnist for Reuters; a writer for the National Review's "The Agenda" blog; a policy adviser for e21, a nonpartisan economic research group; and co-author of "Grand New Party: How Conservatives Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream."

(CNN) -- New Jersey, one of the bluest states and where President Barack Obama won 58.3% of the vote in November's presidential election, is poised to re-elect Chris Christie, the state's incumbent Republican governor, this fall.

Having been deeply engaged in New Jersey politics since his youth, Christie seems to relish his role as one of the nation's most powerful and prominent governors. Yet many are wondering whether Christie's popularity in the Garden State has come at the expense of his presidential prospects.

Reihan Salam
Reihan Salam

Mitt Romney, for example, decided not to run for re-election as governor of Massachusetts in the 2006 race, sensing that the steps he'd need to take to achieve political success in his left-leaning state might doom his prospects with the more conservative national Republican primary electorate in 2008.

Christie, in contrast, has spent a great deal of time and energy winning over New Jersey voters who had once dismissed him as a loudmouth ideologue. Has Christie made a serious miscalculation that could doom his prospects for national office? Or is he savvier than his critics understand?

A year ago, conservative activists were enthralled with Christie, who had gained a national following for his quick wit and his combativeness in taking on his state's powerful public employee unions. Even after the Republican primaries were underway, a number of GOP stalwarts hoped that Christie would jump into the presidential race, despite that he was still in his first term as governor.

Part of Christie's appeal was that as the hard-charging Republican chief executive of an overwhelmingly Democratic Northeastern state, he had the potential to scramble the electoral map.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



While the GOP fares well in rural areas and in the suburbs of the South and the Mountain West, the party has taken a beating in the big cities and suburbs of the coasts ever since the rise of Bill Clinton. Christie's common-sense conservatism, however, had managed to win over skeptical voters in one of the country's densest and most diverse states.

But in recent months, Christie has lost some of his luster on the right.

His keynote address at the Republican National Convention was widely viewed as a disappointment, with many suggesting that it had focused too much on Christie's biography and accomplishments rather than the virtues of the Romney-Ryan ticket. And in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, which devastated large stretches of New Jersey's coastline, the governor was fulsome in his praise of Obama's response, giving the embattled incumbent a crucial boost in the days before the election.

Most recently, Christie excoriated House Speaker John Boehner and congressional Republicans for having failed to vote on a Sandy relief bill that promised tens of billions of dollars in aid to his beleaguered constituents. Christie's crossing of party lines has struck at least some of his erstwhile conservative admirers as disloyal in the extreme.

Avlon: Chris Christie drops bomb on GOP leaders

Christie: Boehner wouldn't take my calls
Christie too heavy to be president?
Gov. Christie explains his Obama praise

At the same time, Christie's decisions to distance himself from the House GOP and to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Obama have greatly strengthened his reputation in New Jersey, where his approval rating hit 77% late last year according to a Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind survey.

After having been one of the state's most polarizing political figures, Christie has been embraced by a growing number of Democrats, many of whom have come to see him as a bipartisan problem-solver. Indeed, Christie's political standing reportedly helped convince Cory Booker, the popular mayor of Newark, New Jersey's most populous city, to abandon his plans of running for governor in 2013.

Louis: GOP civil war over Sandy disaster relief

Assuming Christie wins re-election this year, which is far from a foregone conclusion, he has one powerful asset going forward in national politics: The Republican brand has suffered a great deal in recent years.

In a survey conducted by the firm Edelman Berland, voters were asked to compare Democrats and Republicans across a number of brand attributes.

An overwhelming majority of respondents chose the Democrats as the party that "cares about people like me," "offers a hopeful vision" and "focuses on issues that matter to me." If a Republican presidential candidate is going to win in 2016, she or he will have to overcome this deficit. Leading Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana have made an effort to talk about issues of interest to middle-income voters, an area in which Republicans have been sorely lacking.

Yet Christie's willingness to distance himself from congressional Republicans gives him added credibility in selling himself as "a different kind of Republican," and it is reminiscent of the strategy pursued by then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who was sharply critical of congressional Republicans for their willingness to cut anti-poverty programs.

It is not obvious that a "kinder, gentler" Republicanism will fare well in the primary process come 2016, but it is a shrewd way to differentiate oneself from a primary field in which most challengers will be competing to demonstrate their conservative bona fides. And more to the point, a Republican nominee who manages to convey a softer, most centrist image will have a much easier time winning the next general election. That could be Christie's long game.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Reihan Salam.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT