Chris Christie’s Sobering Lesson for John Boehner and Mitch McConnell

A sign supporting the re-election campaign for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is seen at a building site on July 1, 2013, in Jersey City, N.J.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie looks set to coast to re-election and a possible presidential campaign, there have been an increasing number of articles about his success as a quite-conservative governor of a pretty liberal state. The most striking thing about these articles is that exactly zero of them are articles about the wisdom and statesmanship of members of the New Jersey state legislature’s Democratic Party caucus who have voted in favor of Christie legislation. And yet the only reason the Christie administration has managed to sign anything into law is that New Jersey Democrats—free and equal adult human beings and autonomous moral agents fully capable of deciding for themselves what they want to do—have at various times decided for various personal, factional, or regional reasons to line up behind Christie measures.

There’s an important lesson here for John Boehner and Mitch McConnell and other Republicans in Congress, namely that for all the criticism congressional Republicans have gotten for extremism, their basic posture of root-and-branch rejection of Obama proposals has some real logic to it.

If you think back to the winter of 2008–2009, the basic hope of the Obama team was something like this. With almost 60 Democratic senators, members of the Republican minority would know that the market price of a GOP vote was low. After all, Democrats only needed to pick up two or three. Of course a hard core of 25 to 30 Republicans wouldn’t want to make deals. But there’d be a couple of dozen Republican senators who on any given measure would be willing to say “yes” in exchange for a favor or so—either some idiosyncratic personal priority or a special regional need or whatever would hold sway. And the presence of a fair amount of GOP cover would reassure Democrats from red states. Liberals would whine that legislation was being watered-down more than necessary to secure 70 to 75 votes, but big majorities would serve a clear political purpose of signaling to the country the existence of strong bipartisan leadership. And the vast majority of the credit would go to Barack Obama and his team, just as it has to Christie and his.

But McConnell was hip to this. As he explained to Josh Green:

“We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals,” McConnell says. “Because we thought—correctly, I think—that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan. When you hang the ‘bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward.”

That was McConnell speaking in early 2011, when his strategy really seemed to be bearing fruit. After Obama’s re-election in 2012, the picture looks a bit more murky. But Christie’s broad popularity in New Jersey is a reminder of the basic logic of McConnell’s view. If miraculously an immigration bill and a budget bill get signed into law this year or next, then almost regardless of content these big bipartisan proposals are likely to be popular. And the stories that will be written about the legislation will be stories about Obama’s savvy in getting things done, not about the wisdom and judiciousness of the Republicans who said yes.