Magazine | November 25, 2013, Issue

The Christie Challenge

Can he make it on the national level?

Chris Christie’s victory has predictably ignited talk of his seeking the presidency. Before his backers start reserving the moving van, though, it’s worth stepping back and calmly surveying what he’s accomplished. For all his notoriety and political acumen, neither his political nor his policy victories are directly translatable to the national stage.

Christie’s backers argue that his tremendous margin in a deep-blue state and his much-larger-than-normal support from blue-collar whites, women, and minorities show that his appeal transcends partisan boundaries. This contention, however, ignores the context in which those margins were obtained. Plenty of Republicans have done well in non-presidential elections among non-traditional GOP voters. Former New Jersey governor Tom Kean won nearly half of the black vote in 1985; former Jersey City mayor Bret Schundler won reelection in his heavily Democratic city because of his appeal among minorities. Neither result was a harbinger of future GOP success. Schundler was unable to transfer his city appeal to his statewide run for governor, and Kean’s accomplishment remains merely a ripple in an otherwise stagnant sea of GOP support among blacks.

The similar experience of former governor William Weld in Massachusetts is useful to recall. In 1994, this fiscally conservative, socially moderate Republican won reelection with almost 71 percent of the vote. He carried every county in the state, including Boston’s Suffolk County, in which he received 60.4 percent. National speculation grew that the GOP had a winner, and so Weld tried to take a step up to the presidency by challenging Senator John Kerry in 1996.

Weld lost that race by seven and a half points, 52.2 to 44.7 percent, and the race’s geographic breakdown mirrored national election trends rather than those Weld had had in 1994. Weld lost Suffolk by over 30 points, getting barely 30 percent, and dropped over 25 points in most other counties. Voters who were willing to pull the lever for a Republican for a state reelection were unwilling to do so when national issues were thrust to the fore.

The real question Christie backers need to ask is whether Christie’s New Jersey accomplishment translates well to the national level. On that score, I’d invoke ancient Scottish law and say the verdict is not proven.

Christie owes his state dominance and national fame to two acts. First, he limited public-employee pensions at a time of fiscal straits, thereby preventing large tax hikes that the bulk of voters would have had to bear. Second, he presided over a great catastrophe, Hurricane Sandy, with skill and compassion, turning from a fiscal lion into a socially responsible lamb.

The latter experience is unlikely to help Christie go national. Rudy Giuliani presided over a much more searing and nationally prominent catastrophe, 9/11, with similar calm, compassion, and aplomb. America’s Mayor, however, found that such qualities did not lead to Republican primary votes because voters were looking for something else from a potential president. And that brings us to Christie’s signature accomplishment, the pension battle.

As difficult as this battle was, it was politically easy compared with the national fiscal issues he will have to address. Public employees are a distinct minority in New Jersey; the taxes that would have had to be raised to pay for their benefits would have been borne by all. Christie showed courage in fighting the unions, but because he was addressing only compensation excesses rather than the programs themselves, he was able to rally the many — the voters — in opposition to the few.

At the federal level, the fiscal problem comes from the programs themselves. Any credible attempt to deal with our fiscal challenge without raising tax rates must involve persuading the many that restricting their own benefits is in their interest. That’s going to be a hard battle and one utterly unlike any Christie has yet fought.

#page#Furthermore, he will have to fight this battle on two fronts simultaneously, among Republicans angling to get to his right and Democrats angling to hold the center from the left. Each battle will pose a challenge the governor has not yet had to face.

The standard Republican argument on entitlements, which is made by establishment and base alike, stands Christie’s New Jersey argument on its head. This argument — cut entitlements to avoid tax hikes on the well-off, which indirectly come back to hurt the many — is complicated and lacks immediate intuitive appeal to the swing voter. It makes the many appear to sacrifice on behalf of the few, and as such would immediately eliminate Christie’s ability to obtain extra votes among non-traditional constituencies. This approach simply reestablishes traditional partisan lines and will cause Democratic-leaning groups to return to their party just as Massachusetts Democrats and independents returned to Kerry against Weld.

Christie cannot avoid this trap by simply invoking his purported ability to work across the aisle. Without a clear rationale as to why Democrats would submit to his will, Christie will be unable to explain either how he is substantively different from his competitors or how his plan works in behalf of everyone.

It will be relatively easy for his competitors to demonstrate this; all one needs to do is work through the ten-for-one question Byron York asked in the summer of 2011. York famously asked the 2012 GOP competitors if they would accept a deal that raised taxes $1 for every $10 in spending cuts. Not one candidate said he would. Should such a question be posed to Christie, he would have to break ranks — or else he would have to drop his contention that he can work with Democrats, as no one believes Democrats will deal without new revenue. But an opponent could then skewer him by asking why he thinks Democrats would take that deal, given the popularity of the programs he would have to cut. Without explaining how he can persuade average Americans that such a lopsided ratio would be in their interest and not in the interest of the rich, Christie’s answer would have to be solely personal: His charisma and will would compel the Democrats to make a deal. That would be patently unpersuasive to both a primary- and a general-election audience.

Christie does have a powerful advantage that was in evidence in his New Jersey experience that would help him address this national dilemma, but it is not one he has yet brought forth. Christie has an unusual ability to connect with the common person because of his background and his manner of speech. As such, he is perhaps the only one of the major GOP contenders being bruited about who could conceivably rally mass public opinion behind a coherent center-right economic platform. But such ability does not come from the fighting Christie or the crisis leader, nor is it directly connected to the issues involved in the pension war: It comes straight from the average-Joe part of the Christie persona.

Christie’s New Jersey success ultimately rests on the notion that he represents the aspirations of average New Jerseyites against the elites. Translating that to the national stage would necessarily require him to explain to Republican elites why they must sacrifice to deal with our fiscal woes. Subsidies for business and the upper middle class will have to be cut to simply maintain today’s tax rates. Such translation would also apply to average Americans: Those who can afford to do more themselves will need to do so to avoid the tax hikes that could cripple our economy. Such a formulation would avoid the “many versus the few” trap the Democrats are waiting to deploy. Christie as the tribune for the common man would be defending the common good, asking the many to contribute for themselves.

Such an approach would draw on, but not simply repeat, Christie’s New Jersey experiences. Common Man Christie can be angry at times and soft at times, so long as in each case the emotion is deployed on behalf of the many and not on behalf of the few.

Christie enthusiasts may want to believe that Christie need not learn anything new from his New Jersey experience or that the standard GOP economic playbook will fly if only we have an articulate messenger. But I think that deep down the governor knows this is what he’ll have to do. And if we can see this Christie start to develop over the next year, then this November’s reelection could be very consequential indeed.

– Mr. Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Henry Olsen — Henry Olsen is an elections analyst and political essayist who studies conservative politics, both here and abroad.

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