Politics & Policy

Christie’s Rise Is a Triumph of Style over Conservative Principle

Christie campaigns in Manchester, N.H., in October. (Darren McCollester/Getty)

If there’s a lesson to be learned from the topsy-turvy 2016 campaign, it’s that if a candidate sounds sufficiently tough, many Republicans will overlook the ideological heresies in his past. Exhibit A will forever be Donald Trump, but Chris Christie makes a strong Exhibit B.

Christie is rising. He’s doubled his support in New Hampshire since early November, climbing to third or fourth in the latest Granite State polls, and is said to be rising in the race to be an “establishment” alternative to the likes of Trump and Ted Cruz.

In part, Christie’s current “moment” reflects a masterful ability to sound pugnaciously conservative despite a mixed political record. In the debates, he demonstrates his natural gifts as a communicator, staring directly at the camera and speaking straightforwardly to viewers in their living rooms. He repeats the same anecdotes, jokes, and talking points with such fluidity that the average voter wouldn’t know he’s used them 1,000 times before. He bristles with impatience at arguments between his rivals, sneering with boredom, and mocks their minute disagreements as “endless debate about how many angels fit on the head of a pin.”

It’s a schtick — the man of action in a sea of talkers, the Mr. Fix-It among the ineffectual wonks — that must be appealing to the kind of voter who likes Trump’s style but wishes it was backed up by even a shred of substance. And while it bodes ill for productive political discourse, it obviously works for Christie, because he’s kept at it. And it has the tangential benefit of masking what is at best a spotty history of conservative policymaking.

RELATED: There’s No Denying Chris Christie Is a Serious Political Talent

Steven Malanga’s detailed review of Christie’s record as governor shows some distinct conservative victories: vetoing tax hikes, cutting the spending increases enacted by his Democratic predecessor Jon Corzine, enacting a 2 percent cap on annual property-tax increases, and moving the ball in the right direction on pension reform for state employees, one of the most intractable problems in New Jersey politics.

But Malanga’s overarching portrait is of a governor who took on a juggernaut of wildly irresponsible tax-and-spend Democratic state legislators and ended up settling for modest, probably insufficient reforms. And his broader record of flip-flopping on conservative priorities is troubling.

#share#Christie chose to not join other states in the lawsuit against Obamacare. As a presidential candidate, he opposes the expansion of Medicaid nationally, but he agreed to expand the program in New Jersey under the president’s signature health-care law, with the caveat that the expansion would be rescinded if the federal government broke its funding promises. In the November debate, Christie bizarrely claimed that, “We stopped Obamacare in New Jersey because we refused to participate in the federal exchange.” But New Jersey does participate in the federal exchange; it didn’t set up its own state exchange.

He may not be a consistent conservative, but he does a really convincing job of playing one on TV.

Few Republicans tear into teachers’ unions with such relish; he’s called the American Federation of Teachers the “single most destructive force in public education in America” and suggested they need “a punch in the face.” But as governor, Christie accepted the Obama administration’s Common Core standards, explaining that “we signed on to try to get funds during a really difficult fiscal time.” Before the audience of CPAC in 2015, he said he regretted how the standards had been implemented.

Christie describes himself as a rare beast: a pro-life Republican governor from the Northeast who vetoed state funding for Planned Parenthood and earned praise from New Jersey Right to Life. But earlier in his political career, in a 1994 race, he painted himself as pro-choice and said he personally donated to Planned Parenthood.

#related#And just this week, Christie told Sean Hannity he’s changed his mind on guns. This is a man who once declared that he does not believe New Jersey citizens should be permitted to own a licensed weapon just because they want one. Not long ago, NR’s Charles C. W. Cooke described the New Jersey governor’s record on the Second Amendment as “execrable.”

These opportunistic shifts may not matter, of course. The final weeks before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary could make GOP voters reassess the candidates with a new level of scrutiny and seriousness. But it could also turn out that style matters more than substance in the post-Obama political landscape. Christie is no doubt banking on the latter possibility: He may not be a consistent conservative, but he does a really convincing job of playing one on TV.

— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.

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