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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.

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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.

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

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