Governor Chris Christie doesn’t care if conservatives are griping about his praise for President Barack Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. “If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics, then you don’t know me,” he said in an interview with Fox News on Tuesday. But that hasn’t stopped conservative commentators from wondering aloud about Christie’s motives.
At Hot Air, popular blogger Allahpundit says skeptics on the right suspect Christie is “prioritizing his own reelection bid as governor over the Romney campaign,” or positioning himself for a future presidential run. On his Wednesday show, Rush Limbaugh groused that Christie played “the role of a Greek column” for Obama when the pair toured several storm-damaged areas.
Christie allies tell National Review Online that the rising conservative angst is unwarranted. He’s still a Romney supporter, and he has been in touch with Romney over the past few days. But with his state in crisis, he is, for the most part, apolitical and loving it. On his Twitter feed and during TV interviews, Christie’s tone is as bombastic as ever, yet totally sapped of partisanship.
“In politics, you’ll never please everybody, and Rush Limbaugh or somebody else may not be happy with everything you do,” says Larry Bathgate, an influential Garden State Republican and Christie fundraiser. “But Christie knows that people want to see political leaders from both parties coming together. He isn’t concerned about the commentators, or whether it’s a plus for the president.”
Republican state senator Tom Kean Jr., who is close with Christie, says the governor relishes being a manager during times of crisis more than politicking, so he’s not surprised to see his friend embrace his federal partners and publicly ignore politics. “If the administration is giving the appropriate support, Chris is going to recognize that,” Kean says. “If they weren’t, believe me, he’d say so.”
“The president of the United States called and asked Chris to show him the devastation from the worst storm of this century,” Kean explains, when asked how the Christie-Obama meeting on Wednesday was arranged. “[Christie] knows that it’s his responsibility to do that, to show the president firsthand what happened. As people recover from this terrible storm, a united front is an important thing.”
Craig Shirley, a Reagan biographer and longtime conservative activist, says conservatives shouldn’t look at Christie’s appreciation for the president as a Machiavellian maneuver. “If he didn’t meet with Obama, just imagine what the political press would say,” he says. “Christie would be called petty for injecting presidential politics. So he had no choice.”
Al Felzenberg agrees. He is a former adviser to former New Jersey governor Tom Kean Sr. (Kean Sr. has been Christie’s mentor since Christie was a teenager.) Christie is simply doing his job, Felzenberg says, and the political consequences of the stagecraft of it all, especially the president’s visit, are hard to figure. If anything, Felzenberg thinks Christie, not Obama, will get the biggest popularity boost.
As Christie keeps appearing in front of cameras and talking through his decisions in that blue fleece, his national reputation will be elevated. “Christie may come out of this as the Rudy Giuliani of Hurricane Sandy,” says Felzenberg, who was a spokesman for the 9/11 Commission. “After 9/11, Giuliani would tell people, quite frankly, where to go, and people connected with him, just like with Christie.”
“I’d like to think there is a thread of sincerity left in American politics and that Christie is trying to help people,” Shirley says. He doesn’t “buy” the criticism from Limbaugh and others, and believes that by the weekend, the presidential campaign will be back in action.
Of course, Christie isn’t the first Republican governor to bond with a Democratic president during a national disaster. For example, after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Clinton reached out to Republican governor Frank Keating. “They had little in common,” recalls Clinton biographer Taylor Branch in his book, The Clinton Tapes, “but this trauma dissolved their differences.”
Christie is expected to run for reelection next year, though he has yet to confirm his plans. He also considered running for president last year, before backing away from the idea at an October 2011 press conference. His approval ratings in solidly blue New Jersey remain high — 56 percent, according to a mid-October Quinnipiac poll.
But Christie isn’t talking about that this week, or about Romney’s chances. “I’ve got a job to do here in New Jersey that’s much bigger than presidential politics,” he told Fox News. “I could care less about any of that stuff.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.