How Chris Christie Fools Liberals Into Attacking Him For Being Too Conservative

Chris Christie

If Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) wants to win the presidency in 2016, he needs to look conservative enough to be the Republican nominee and moderate enough to be president.

He’s successfully executing one part of a strategy to do this: Convincing liberal commentators that he’s an unreconstructed conservative given too much credit for moderation. When he draws their fire, he convinces conservatives that he’s one of them.

For example, in the New York Magazine cover story on Christie this week, Benjamin Wallace-Wells wrote that Christie holds “conventionally conservative positions on many issues,” such as being “opposed to government programs for the poor.”

That sort of description helps Christie’s standing with conservatives, but it’s not accurate. Christie actually takes quite a generous view on programs for the poor. Check out these passages from Christie’s February budget proposal (emphasis added):

The Christie Administration has demonstrated its commitment to providing subsidized health coverage for uninsured children by maintaining the income eligibility level for children’s coverage at 350% of the federal poverty level — the second highest coverage level in the country…

Governor Christie is taking action to expand health care coverage for New Jersey’s most vulnerable citizens through Medicaid. New Jersey already has one of the most expansive and generous Medicaid programs in the nation, including the second highest eligibility rate for children. Expanding Medicaid will mean that more New Jerseyans at or near the poverty line will have access to critical health services, while saving New Jersey taxpayers approximately $US227 million in fiscal year 2014 alone.

The Medicaid expansion is particularly key here. Christie is the most prominent Republican politician who is bucking the party on the issue. But a lot of commentators (e.g. Jonathan Chait) have been under the misimpression that he’s rejecting the expansion.

That’s probably because they saw headlines like this Reuters one from June: “New Jersey’s Christie Vetoes Medicaid Expansion Bill.”

Here’s what happened. Christie included the Medicaid expansion in his 2013-14 budget, which passed. Then the Democratic-controlled legislature passed another bill to make the expansion permanent.

Christie opposes this. He wants to reauthorize the expansion annually in the state budget, thus reserving the option to stop participating if the federal government cuts its financial support of the program. So he vetoed the bill. But the important move on Medicaid expansion stands — its authorization for the next year in the state budget.

This is a classic, Christie-era New Jersey kabuki move. Christie and the Democrats who lead the legislature are actually moderates who agree on a lot. Christie is willing to work with them to finance generous government programs, and they are willing to work with him to cut the cost of public employee benefits. But to placate their bases, they have to find issues to scream at each other about.

Hence the permanent Medicaid bill, which allowed Democrats to say they were standing up to Christie to fight for the health care law and allowed Christie to veto an Obamacare bill. But it did not actually affect the policy that both sides agreed on: New Jersey will take the Medicaid expansion.

Unlike Mitt Romney, he’s found a way to sell himself to the right without actually moving to the right.

If someone actually picks up his budget books, Christie will be outed as a moderate. So far, his bluster is speaking more loudly than his record.