Skip to main content

Christie is GOP's lone superstar

By Timothy Stanley, Special to CNN
updated 8:03 AM EST, Wed November 6, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Timothy Stanley: Christie winner in NJ governor's race. He's all image: a GOP superstar
  • He says reality is Christie's record is checkered. But GOP likes that he draws voters
  • Still, his stance on social issues not strictly conservative; could hamper his support, he says
  • Stanley: In conservative circles, Cruz, Paul rule. But Christie could soon eclipse them

Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain's The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan." Watch Jake Tapper's interview with Chris Christie today at 4 pm on "The Lead".

(CNN) -- New Jersey voters reelected Chris Christie by a wide margin Tuesday night. That might surprise Mitt Romney, who, according to a new book, decided not to run Christie as a vice presidential candidate in 2012 because of ethics issues, tardiness and his weight. It's a pity they couldn't have looked beyond his girth, because all the evidence suggests he's a genuine Republican superstar.

I use the word superstar in its fullest sense: His appeal is iconic rather than intellectual. And that makes him appealing to Republicans who want to win in 2016, although he's not necessarily a great fit for conservatives looking for an ideological champion.

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

A star is someone who is adored for his reputation and image rather than for the reality of who he is or what he has achieved. Chris Christie's record in New Jersey is actually rather checkered. His state is not business-friendly and tax rates can be punishingly high; thanks to its property taxes, the state ranked last (tied with New York) among the 50 states in the Tax Foundation's annual report. Poverty has hit a 52-year high under Christie.

An astonishing 24.7% of the state's population is categorized as poor. New Jersey's credit rating fell on Christie's watch. In summary, on many of the fronts that Republicans should outperform their rivals (cutting taxes, fiscal reputation, raising standards of living) Christie is a disappointment.

But only a minority of New Jersey voters seem to care. What appeals more than quantifiable success is the image of success: taking on the teaching unions, shouting down hecklers, projecting a sense of no-nonsense competence liberated from politics-as-usual. In September 2013, Tom Moran, a columnist for the New Jersey Star-Ledger, noted the oft-made comparison between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and TV's Tony Soprano: both hyper-masculine, Catholic, conservative, loud-mouthed, and enjoying a reputation built upon bravado.

What to expect on Election Day 2013
Analysis: Christie's political future
Christie withdraws gay marriage appeal
Chris Christie's political ambitions

It's that larger-than-life personality, said Moran, that keeps Christie viable both as a governor and a presidential candidate. "At town hall meetings, Christie is relaxed, funny and persuasive. He usually looks to pick a fight at the end, like an entertainer singing the crowd favorite as an encore. It's compelling stuff. But it's thin gruel, in the end. Because the substance doesn't remotely measure up to the spin."

No, it does not. But in electoral politics, rather than the real world of high taxes and rising poverty, that might not really matter. As governor of California in the 1970s, Ronald Reagan raised taxes at least 10 times. Yet he still won election as a conservative, tax-cutting, cowboy Republican in 1980. He was to John Wayne what Christie is to Soprano: a couple of stars who rose above the details.

So, many conservatives might be looking at Christie and making a canny calculation: "Here is a Republican candidate who can win a blue state despite having a mixed record and a reputation for picking fights. He is someone who middle-class voters seem to identify with and like - and there are few other national Republicans around like that right now."

It's a tempting pitch, but GOP supporters watching Christie's success in New Jersey ought to bear a few things in mind. First, that mixed record in office may come back to haunt the governor and be used against him, much as inmate furloughs were used against Michael Dukakis or policy reversals against Mitt Romney. Second, Christie might find he doesn't convince conservatives at a national level that he is truly one them.

It's not just that he embraced Obama during the crucial last phase of the 2012 election. He has nondogmatic positions on same-sex marriage, immigration reform and gun control, and that puts him out of sync with the present spirit of the American right. Ironically, Ken Cuccinelli, a candidate who lost Tuesday in Virginia, is liked by many grass-roots conservatives and likely more reflective of their values.

One of the GOP's problems is that it has plenty of talented people but it embraces them with unequal passion. Another is that what excites the voters at large doesn't necessarily excite the grass-roots. There is a feeling that all the conservative action right now is with Ted Cruz and the tea party or Rand Paul and the libertarians. Chris Christie and the Sopranos remains a sideshow. Although, with enough presidential campaign money behind him, his star will doubtless grow.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Stanley.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
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 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
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 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
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 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
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.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT