Chris Christie Is Massively Successful, And People Are Totally Wrong About Why

Chris Christie

Chris Hayes opened his MSNBC show last night by talking about Christie’s “three-card monte” — vetoing a .50-calibre rifle ban that liberals wanted on Friday and then signing a bill banning ex-gay therapy on Monday.

In Hayes’ telling, this was a dizzying left-right-centre dance to appeal to all parts of the electorate at once while concealing his true political ideology.

But really, Christie was just doing what moderates do: sometimes they please the left and sometimes they don’t. And they pick shots wisely, saving their politically costly moves for issues that really matter.

It’s a sign of how screwed up our politics have become that partisans react to this — looking for policies that align with median voter preferences and serve the broad public interest — as though it must be some sort of trick.

Let’s take the .50-calibre rifle issue. It’s the sort of proposal that polls well with the broad electorate but antagonizes highly-motivated gun rights activists. But as a policy issue, it verges on irrelevance.

As Christie noted in his veto message, the bill’s proponents could find no examples of crimes being committed with such weapons in New Jersey. In 1999, the Government Accountability Office looked into the weapons at the behest of then-Rep. Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.) and could find only one example of such a rifle being used in a crime, by the Branch Davidians during the Waco standoff.

Christie probably vetoed the bill for exactly the reason Hayes cites: He doesn’t want to alienate gun advocates any more than he already has with his moderate stances on guns. (He already opposes conceal-and-carry laws and picked a fight with the National Rifle Association over their ad featuring President Obama’s daughters, which he called “reprehensible.”) Best to mend those fences by vetoing a bill whose impact on quality of life in New Jersey would be, to a first approximation, zero.

If you want to look at what Christie has done on issues that actually affect crime and public safety in New Jersey, it would be better to focus on his administration’s reforms of parole and probation that aim to reduce recidivism, even though that issue is less sexy than exotic guns.

Parole reform is an issue that can appeal across party lines. But where bucking his party is necessary to serve the interests of New Jersey residents, Christie has been willing to do so. Most notably, he accepted Medicaid expansion component of Obamacare, which most Republican governors have been rejecting under severe pressure from conservatives.

In his February budget speech, this is how Christie explained his decision to break with most Republicans and participate:

While we already have one of the most expansive and generous Medicaid programs in the nation, including the second highest eligibility rate for children, we have an opportunity to ensure that an even greater number of New Jerseyans who are at or near the poverty line will have access to critical health services beginning in January 2014. For a single adult, 133% of the poverty level is under $US16,000 a year. These people are consistently among those who need help the most — men and women who have suffered trauma in their lives, live with mental illness, rely on New Jersey’s emergency rooms for primary health care needs, or those citizens who lack insurance or access to treatment.

Does that sound like typical Republican messaging on Medicaid? Christie has identified his party’s scorched-earth opposition to Obamacare and aid-to-the-poor programs as a policy failure and a political liability, and he’s pushed back against it, even though that will probably hurt him in the 2016 primaries.

That didn’t stop Ben Wallace-Wells from writing in his New York Magazine cover story that Christie “is opposed to government programs for the poor.” Nor did it stop Ed Schultz from declaring this weekend that “Chris Christie is no different from the rest of these radical governors” and demanding to know when Christie would stand up to his party on Obamacare obstruction. Liberals are clinging to the Christie-as-fake-moderate story by disregarding the parts of his record that contradict it.

Similarly, Hayes and others in the media have looked at Christie’s signing of the ex-gay therapy ban as a calculated effort to soften his image. But the move was consistent with his overall record on gay rights issues, where he has opposed marriage equality but otherwise taken gay-friendly stances. Last year, Christie signed a law to combat anti-gay bullying in schools. He says he is “adamant that same-sex couples in a civil union deserve the very same rights and benefits enjoyed by married couples.”

It’s not the set of positions I’d most prefer to see Christie take. But it’s a moderate one that liberals were willing to put up with from President Obama until a year ago.

Christie’s moderation is also visible on state-specific issues not of much interest to the national media. New Jersey politics are traditionally a tug-of-war over state tax dollars between wealthy, Republican-leaning suburbs and less-wealthy Democratic cities. For a Republican, Christie has taken an unusually city-friendly approach to state aid that has helped him build productive working relationships not just with Newark Mayor Cory Booker but with Democratic officials in lots of medium-sized cities, expanding his appeal to normally-Democratic voters.

State Sen. Barbara Buono, the Democratic nominee against Christie, has taken to attacking him for letting property taxes rise too much. He’s also faced this attack from another source: Steve Lonegan, now the Tea Party Republican nominee for Senate, panned Christie’s first budget for giving too much money to cities and spending too little on property-tax rebates, which mostly help the suburbs. In other words, Christie has taken a moderate stance on state fiscal issues to broaden his constituency and it’s led to Buono hitting him from the right.

Yesterday, Hayes raised one objection to Christie that we can’t fully evaluate yet: Once he’s re-elected, he’ll no longer face pressure to moderate his stances, and he’ll lurch to the right. But I think Christie has good reasons not to replicate Mitt Romney’s self-reinvention.

Christie’s aggressive style and perceived authenticity earn him wide latitude from conservatives on policy that Romney did not enjoy. For example, Republicans in New Jersey, 96% of whom approve of the job Christie’s doing, do not appear to be holding the property tax issue against him.

Mitt Romney’s transparent shifts on policy issues undermined voters’ trust in him. Christie would like to go into a general election with as much of his broad popularity and straight-shooter image intact as possible.

And when you read Christie’s attacks on Sen. Rand Paul (R), you can see a preview of his messaging: He said he didn’t have time for a beer summit with Paul because he has a job where “you are responsible for actually doing things and not just debating.”

If Christie is going to run by contrasting his record of bipartisan legislative accomplishments with Republicans in Congress who have done nothing but “shout into the wind,” as Christie said at last week’s Republican National Committee summer meeting, he’s going to have to embrace his record.

Of course, I might be wrong. We’ll see over the next two years, after Christie cruises to re-election. But we already know that Christie has been a moderate, and we have good reasons to expect that he will remain so.