Mainstream Republicans are doing backflips over Chris Christie’s frolic to re-election as governor of New Jersey. Here is a Republican who took on public employee unions, spoke out against abortion and gay marriage, and still scored a landslide win in a blue state. And he won Latinos’ and women’s votes, too.
Wounded by the government shutdown, Republicans looking toward the 2016 presidential election rejoice at their hero’s performance. And Christie is indeed a dream candidate – but only as long as they forget about their tea party nightmare. To the right-wingers, Christie is a supersize RINO (Republican in name only). It’s gonna be him or them.
The tea party’s ruling emotion is a desire to smite those who won’t bow to its high-def vision of righteousness. So Christie’s promise to work with others – including the radicals’ designated enemies – would amount to playing with the devil, would it not?
The Republican base has shown an amazing ability to force the party’s candidates into politically self-destructive stances. That’s its price for the nomination. If the tea partyers can’t force a candidate to renounce previous beliefs on their rack of purist ideology, no one will fear them.
You know what Machiavelli said about safer to be feared than loved. Republican analysts persist in calling Christie a conservative, marveling again and again at his popularity in a liberal state despite his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. But that is because Christie has done little about either.
New Jersey remains one of the most liberal states on abortion – no waiting periods, no mandated parental approval, no limitations on publicly funded abortions. Had Christie pushed serious new restrictions, he would not have received a majority of the female vote, you can be sure. And his statements on abortion allow for several exceptions. Social conservatives can’t let Christie be Christie on this matter.
As for same-sex marriage, Christie recently declined to appeal a New Jersey court ruling allowing gays and lesbians to wed. Perhaps Christie deeply believes that this should not be. Well, so what if he does?
By the way, Christie supports gun control and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. And he accepts the science of global warming. Christie’s signature issue has been the fight with public employees over benefits. This has not endeared him to public employee unions and their supporters on the far left. But that leaves everyone else.
The outsize promises made to state and local workers have been a thorny issue throughout blue America, dividing the liberal base and turning many a registered Democrat into an independent. But you don’t have to be a Republican to take this problem on. New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, pushed through a passel of serious reforms. Democrats in deeply blue California, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have done likewise.
Christie has benefited from a personality the size of a hydroelectric plant. A beefy loud guy who kisses everyone can go far in Jersey. How a bear hug from someone other than a bear might register in Idaho remains to be seen.
But Christie’s finest hour was, of course, Superstorm Sandy and his crusade of comfort. The people will never forget how he blasted fellow Republicans for withholding aid for Sandy’s victims. He even urged donors to withhold money for the party. And he bonded with President Obama during the crisis, no apologies attached.
Can you hear the smashing of tea party china? Christie is everything the right-wingers can’t stand. If he becomes the face of the Republican Party, it’s all over for them. To the right, Christie is an existential threat.
• Froma Harrop is a member of the Providence Journal editorial board. She can still be followed on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at email@example.com.