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 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT