Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Should Chris Christie move to the right?

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Mon August 12, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Idea that GOP candidates must tack to the right to gain support is myth
  • He says Chris Christie's chances at presidency would be stronger if he stayed in center
  • Christie appeals to Democratic voters; running to the right would lose them, Zelizer says
  • Zelizer: The most successful GOP presidential candidates have pushed moderate themes

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- If he decides to run for president, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will need to push back against the inevitable pressure that he will encounter to move to the right.

Christie has emerged as one of the most exciting potential candidates for the GOP, a Republican who has been popular in a blue state and who has demonstrated the kind of straight talk with the media that voters find appealing.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

In New Jersey, a recent poll shows 30% of the Democratic vote supporting Christie.

His willingness to take on the barons of his own party, without capitulating to his Democratic opponents, has bolstered the impression that he would try to break the gridlock that has bogged down Washington, much as Barack Obama did as a presidential candidate in 2008. His emphasis on budgetary conservatism rather than social and cultural conservatism also has the potential to win over moderate voters.

The conventional wisdom will quickly push him to placate the right, even before he officially starts running, just in terms of what he does in a second term as governor of New Jersey.

For decades, pundits and experts have constantly warned that the nature of the presidential primary system means that a candidate has to move far to the right within the GOP if he or she is going to win over voters who tend come out for these contests, voters who veer toward the extremes of the political spectrum.

Christie picks fight with Sen. Rand Paul

Yet the conventional wisdom tends to overstate the political benefits that Republican presidential candidates derive from shifting to the right and downplays the damage that is caused by such moves.

At the most basic level, moderate Republicans, often governors, who try to dramatically transform their images for primary voters are usually not very effective. Conservatives don't walk away feeling as if they are true bedfellows, and the rest of the voters are left to wonder how hard the candidate will really fight for a new agenda that crosses the partisan divide. Democrats are also given a treasure chest of controversial statements to paint their opponent as an extremist.

In 2012, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney tried to convince the right that he was a true conservative with hardline statements on health care and taxes that clearly contradicted his own political record in the Bay State.

Rather than running on his record, Romney started to run away from it and tried to pretend he was a very different kind of candidate, a politician who was "severely conservative," as he later said.

In the end, however, Republican primary voters did not pick Romney because he was a far-right conservative but because he appeared to be the most viable candidate for the general election. But by the time of the Republican convention, Romney's flip-flopping made it hard to sell himself to voters as something different, and Obama pounded away on the conservative statements that came out of the primaries as evidence that Romney really was a right-wing conservative, more out of the tradition of Barry Goldwater than the tradition of Nelson Rockefeller. The story of a Republican governor in a blue state who had been able to work with Democrats to solve big problems like health care was impossible to tell.

Christie should realize that he will never be a Sen. Ted Cruz, even to right-wing voters. What he will be able to sell to them in the primaries is the claim that his straight-talking, pragmatic approach to Republican politics will do better in the general election against a formidable candidate like Hillary Clinton and would probably do more to actually advance the party as well as legislation that matters to those who support the GOP. This is his best argument for the primaries and for the general election.

The Republicans who have done best in presidential elections have steered clear of the right and offered themes that united their coalition and even attracted some Democrats. In 1968 and 1972, Richard Nixon focused on the "Silent Majority" of Americans who were unhappy with the anti-war protests taking place in the colleges and the urban riots. His main message, one that had broad appeal, was that the war in Vietnam was a disaster and that he would do better.

Ronald Reagan, though closely aligned with the conservative movement, built his campaign in 1980 around the themes of anti-communism and anti-taxation -- as well as attacks on Jimmy Carter. In 1988, George H.W. Bush did the same. His son George W. Bush promised voters an agenda of "compassionate conservatism" in 2000 and national security in 2004.

Even the Republicans who gained the nomination and went on to lose in the general election tended to be the moderates in the primaries, not the candidates of the hard right.

In 1976, President Gerald Ford fended off a strong challenge from Reagan, who at that point made little effort to hide his right-wing allegiance. In 1992, President Bush stifled a challenge from former Nixon speechwriter Patrick Buchanan, who made a hard pitch to social and cultural conservatives, while in 1996, Republicans picked Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole over right-wing candidates like Buchanan.

In 2008, it was maverick and bipartisan bridge builder Sen. John McCain who won the nomination, a candidacy hurt only when he made his appeals to the right and undercut his greatest virtues as a politician, and in 2012, it was Romney rather than the huge cast of conservatives who filled the airwaves.

In all of these cases, it is true that the candidates appealed to the right during key primaries like South Carolina, but it remains far from clear that their victories rested on these kinds of obvious moments of political posturing as much as the overall viability of their candidacy for November. The costs outweighed the benefits.

The point is that in presidential campaigns, moderation can be a powerful tool for Republican candidates.

Christie has made a lot of progress over the past year in positioning himself as a potential candidate. He should look at the historical record before taking the bait to shift right. If Christie makes too many statements that undermine his image, he might very well hand the next Democratic candidate a victory before the campaigns even get under way.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT