Can Christie tackle the partisan divide?

June 10th, 2013



How often these days do we see a political figure liked by both Republicans and Democrats? Not so often that we should fail to notice.

But there was the evidence last week in two different polls. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie drew a 58 percent favorable rating from his fellow Republicans around the country and 52 percent from Democrats in a recent Gallup Poll. Forty percent of Republicans in the NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, and 43 percent of Democrats, said they like Christie. (The NBC-Journal numbers are a bit lower because the poll offered a “neutral” option.)

Christie seems headed for a big re-election victory in New Jersey this November. Polls show him running 30 points ahead of his Democratic opponent. This is in a state that has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1992.

The country has now had four presidents in a row who promised to heal the bitter division between red and blue America. They all failed. Under each successive president – George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama – the partisan divide has gotten worse.

Obama has proved that nice doesn’t work. He tried to make deals with Republican leaders. He tried a charm offensive with rank-and-file Republican legislators. All he got in return was insults and investigations. Now it’s “No more Mr. Nice Guy.” With his latest round of appointments to his national security team as well as the courts, Obama has given up trying to satisfy Republicans. His new message: “In your face.”

But Obama’s got a long way to go before he can match Christie for “in your face” politics. Christie is the un-Obama.  He doesn’t look like Obama, and he certainly doesn’t act like Obama. Christie doesn’t trade on being nice. He busts heads.

He also speaks Jersey. When he was challenged by property owners who complained that he intended to build attractions rather than storm protection on the Jersey shore, Christie shouted back, “That’s bullsh*t!” (After advising children to cover their ears.)

Last month, when he was speaking to a class of schoolchildren, the kids spotted a spider crawling across the desk. The governor smashed it with his bare hand. “That’s another fun part of being governor,” he told the children. “Any bugs on your desk, you’re allowed to kill them and not get in trouble.” (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals did issue a complaint afterward.)

Voters like Christie because he’s a straight talker.  Sound familiar? “Straight talk” was Senator John McCain’s theme when he ran for president in 2000. McCain, too, was liked by Democrats and Republicans. Had McCain gotten the Republican nomination in 2000, he would likely have won big. Instead, Republicans nominated Texas Governor George W. Bush, who won on a technicality.

Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics writes, “Christie is basically setting himself up to run the presidential campaign that John McCain … hoped to run in 2000.” Christie, like McCain in 2000, has bipartisan appeal. He cozied up to Obama after Hurricane Sandy devastated New Jersey last year. He was harshly critical of congressional Republicans who resisted sending aid to his state.

Now he’s angered Republicans again by calling for a special election this year to replace Frank Lautenberg, the Democratic senator who died Monday. His party wanted the governor to appoint a Republican to hold the seat until 2015. Christie’s response: “I favor the people selecting who represents them, not me.”

Christie threatens conservatives – just like McCain did in 2000. But Christie is by no means a liberal. He’s fiscally conservative and socially moderate. He vetoed a bill that would have allowed same-sex couples to marry in New Jersey, but he supports civil unions. He favors some gun controls. His position on abortion: “I am pro-life. I believe in exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. That’s my position, take it or leave it.”

Conservative purists may not take it. They stopped McCain in 2000. Will they stop Christie? McCain won the Republican nomination in 2008, though conservatives still distrusted him. Mitt Romney was not the conservative favorite in 2012, either – but Republicans nominated him, too.

To get the nomination, McCain and Romney had to repudiate their moderate past and capitulate to conservatives. Will Christie have to do the same if he runs in 2016? If he does, he will give up the one quality voters most admire in him — his authenticity.

McCain and Romney both lost. They didn’t lose because they were too moderate. Republicans have lost the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections. Nominating someone like Christie, someone with bipartisan appeal, may be the only way Republicans can win.

Only one other state is electing a governor this year – Virginia, where the Republican candidate, Ken Cuccinelli, is a hard-line social conservative and a Tea Party favorite. The polls in Virginia indicate a close race.

Suppose Cuccinelli loses in Virginia and Christie wins big in New Jersey this year. It would break a pattern that has held in Virginia since 1977, where the year following every presidential election, Virginia elects a governor from the party that just lost the White House. New Jersey has done the same thing since 1989. A Christie victory this year in New Jersey would keep that tradition going.

There would be a message in that result. A Tea Party Republican like Cuccinelli can’t hold a Southern state like Virginia where Republicans are highly competitive. But a mainstream Republican like Christie can win all over the country.

This piece was originally published via Reuters.