That was an impressive victory Chris Christie won in New Jersey the other day. True, he was up against a weak candidate without much support from her party—but that advantage was itself a reflection of his political strength. True as well, he managed to keep a special Senate election that would have shrunk his vote margin from happening on the same day. The fact remains that he won a blowout victory in a navy-blue state.
And he won it while running to the right of any Republican governor of the state in the last generation. Unlike Tom Kean or Christine Todd Whitman, Christie is pro-life. He has vetoed legislation to establish same-sex marriage, and he sharply criticized the U.S. Supreme Court this summer when it went beyond the law to advance that cause. He has held the line on taxes and reformed pensions, staring down teachers’ unions to do so. All of this will and should count in his favor when he runs, as everyone expects, for the Republican presidential nomination.
If the governor is reading this editorial, he will be expecting a “but” around now. Here it is: The governor’s record also includes some mistakes that conservatives will and should hold against him, and we are not talking about whom he has hugged. He accepted Obamacare’s invitation for states to expand Medicaid. He has expressed support for New Jersey’s strict gun-control laws and even (albeit half-heartedly) proposed tightening them. And Christie’s judicial appointments have fallen troublingly short of his rhetoric. He can reasonably defend his decision to abandon his appeal of a New Jersey court’s order to recognize same-sex marriage on the ground that the state’s courts were likely to turn a deaf ear; but that defense is also an indictment.
Then there is the question—and it is a question—of where he stands on national issues with which he has little experience. His dust-up with Senator Rand Paul this summer suggests that he believes, as we do, that we cannot shirk the responsibilities that come with being the most powerful country in the world. They also suggest, however, that he has a tin ear on these issues: The concerns many conservatives raise about the overextension of the national-security state may be unfounded in some instances, but someone who seeks to lead the conservative coalition should not peremptorily dismiss them. Unifying that coalition will require deftness as well as pugnacity.
Also unknown is what Christie thinks of the Republican party’s condition and how to improve it. Is he among those who think that the crucial imperative for the party is to soften its image on social issues? Or that what it needs most is an attractive standard-bearer—a tempting line of thought for any ambitious politician? In our view, the crying need is for an authentically conservative agenda that advances the interests of most Americans, and for leaders who can explain how it does so. Senator Mike Lee of Utah has cleared a path here: Will Governor Christie take it?
Christie enthusiasts portray him as the man who can save the Republican party. Sensible conservatives are not looking for a savior, or a candidate to fall in love with. We are looking for someone who can fill a job, albeit an extremely important one. We are looking for a steady hand, rather than impulsiveness. We are also adults who will have more respect for someone who is up front about his disagreements with us than someone who pretends to be more like-minded than he is.
So kudos to the governor on his victory; and on to a lengthy job interview.