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 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT