As the GOP embraces the reactionary politics and anti-government zealotry of the Tea Party, it is steadily purging “moderates” and empowering extremists. Nothing shows this trend more clearly than the lineup of potential Republican presidential candidates. In this new series, we’ll be looking at the records and promises of the Republican Party’s leading presidential prospects. Next up is Chris Christie:
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s ties to “establishment” party figures have enabled him to become a prolific fundraiser and frequent campaign surrogate, and his heated and bombastic rhetoric has animated many conservatives. However, the New Jersey governor has run a chaotic state government with frequent budget crises, credit downgrades and an atmosphere that led to the notorious, politically motivated Fort Lee highway lane closures, just one of several scandals Christie is facing.
Christie, nonetheless, has one key ally: Fox News.
The conservative media empire that drives the agenda of the Republican Party routinely showers Christie with accolades, even defending the embattled governor in the midst of the lane closure scandal (a scandal the network initially tried to bury). Christie is also close to top conservative bankrollers David Koch, Kenneth Langone and Paul Singer.
Religious Right activists are less warm, and sometimes outright hostile, to Christie. He angered anti-gay activists when he said he didn’t consider homosexuality to be a sin, signed into law a bill banning the practice of ex-gay therapy on minors and decided against appealing a court ruling in favor of marriage equality. His appointments of Muslim and gay judges have also sparked outrage and far-right accusations that he supports Sharia law and the gay agenda.
At the same time, Christie has cozied up to grassroots conservatives in an attempt to prove that he’s not a moderate. A quick look at his record, including his veto of a bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage and hisstrong opposition to abortion rights and Planned Parenthood funding, shows just some of his deeply conservative stances. He has even built a relationship with Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition leader who now heads the Faith and Freedom Coalition (and who, like Christie, has a legacy of shady political dealings), and has tried to win conservative support by relentlessly criticizing publications like the New York Times, blaming his failings on “liberal judicial activism” and pandering to anti-vaxxers.
Christie will likely campaign as a strong fiscal conservative, but his tenure as governor reveals a miserable legacy on financial and economic issues. Under his leadership, New Jersey experienced multiple credit downgrades, regular budget shortfalls, a failed pension reform plan, fiscal mismanagement that benefited political donors, anemic job growth, a transit funding scandal and mishandling of Hurricane Sandy recovery money.
Christie is essentially running on an image the media constructed for him, that of a problem-solving, outspoken governor. In reality, however, the governor has very few accomplishments to substantiate the rhetoric surrounding him.
But Christie may prove to be an appealing candidate for conservative leaders hungry for a win after taking a beating from Obama. And just as when Romney captured the 2012 presidential nomination, the party’s far-right flank is likely to rally behind whoever ends up as the nominee, whether they like him or not, as long as he pledges to hold the line on social issues, appoint conservative ideologues to the judiciary and help elect extremist candidates to Congress.
Just as Romney’s previous support for reproductive rights, LGBT equality and Wall Street bailouts didn’t stop far-right activists from coalescing around his candidacy, Christie’s purported “center-right” reputation is unlikely to dampen Republican enthusiasm after eight years of being shut out of the White House.
Christie’s belligerent style and penchant for picking fights with Democrats may also win the support of Tea Party Republicans who believe their last two nominees lost because they were too apologetic, too moderate and too nice. Say what you will, but that certainly wouldn’t be the case with Christie.