Yesterday Josh Barro cited polls indicating Chris Christie’s broad popularity in New Jersey, including among self-described independents and Democrats, as offering clear evidence that Republicans would be “crazy” not to nominate Christie in 2016.
Christie is obviously a strong contender whom Republicans should take seriously. And presidential elections fought between two basically qualified candidates running basically competent campaigns are mostly determined by the fundamentals. But I think this analysis of Christie’s electoral strength is far too pat and simplistic. It’s after all simply not the case that in the past two presidential elections Republicans have erred by demanding candidates with unblemished records of orthodox conservatism. On the contrary, compared with their major rivals, both Mitt Romney and John McCain were the moderates in the field. But while both Romney and McCain had some major moments of moderation in their records, they didn’t have any moderation in their platforms as presidential candidates. The deal struck by party leaders in both cases was basically “we’ll overlook a record of heterodoxy in exchange for clear indications that you plan to govern in a totally orthodox manner.” It would have been child’s play for Romney to draw a contrast between the pragmatic, ideologically flexible, “get things done” approach he took as governor of Massachusetts and the uncompromising conservatism and obstructionism of the hideously unpopular Boehner/McConnell GOP, but Romney chose not to draw that contrast because despite Romney’s personal record the Romney operation was founded on orthodoxy.
Contrast that with George W. Bush, who campaigned in 2000 not just with hazy references to the largely meaningless bipartisanship of his tenure as governor of Texas but also with criticisms of excessive right-wingery among some of his colleagues. On a thematic level, the branding of “compassionate conservatism” indicated that he felt other conservatives had erred through lack of compassion. He criticized House Republicans for trying to “balance the budget on the backs of the poor” and throughout his first term demonstrated a free hand with domestic spending as long as he could get his way in terms of tax cuts and launching various wars. He was distinctly more conservatives than the Democrats while also less conservative than many other Republicans.
Based on his record, Chris Christie could definitely do that. But Romney’s record and McCain’s record also could have done that. The question for Christie or any other Republicans looking to gain more of a reputation for moderation is whether or how to overcome the dynamics that pushed Romney and McCain in that direction. Maybe he could pull it off. But I’m honestly a little bit skeptical. It seems to me that the most likely path to the center for the GOP starts with someone who has unimpeachable credentials as a social conservative and can basically make the case that the cause of banning abortions shouldn’t be held hostage to an extremely rigid obsession with tax cuts for rich people. The orthodox conservative view on abortion isn’t where the median voter is, but neither is the orthodox liberal view, whereas the orthodox conservative view on tax policy is ridiculously unpopular. Which is to say I see more of an opportunity for a Mike Huckabee (or even Jan Brewer) political profile than a Christie one. He’s clearly taken the politically savvy approach to being a statewide Republican Party politician in New Jersey, but New Jersey is substantially richer and more culturally liberal than the United States as a whole (like Massachusetts), which in some ways creates a misleading picture of where Republicans lose voters nationally.