Born to Run to the Middle

October 21, 2013

During the drawn-out fight over legalizing gay marriage in New Jersey, Governor Christie consistently argued that New Jersey’s voters, not its courts, should decide the issue. In many ways, it was smart tactical maneuver – who, after all, could object to settling the question at the ballot box?

When a court recently ruled that the state must begin allowing same-sex marriage, the Governor immediately announced that the state would appeal. That was in keeping with his previous position that such a momentous decision should reflect the electorate’s views, not those of a judge or group of judges.

But on October 21, the Governor surprised political observers and advocates on both sides of the issue by announcing that his administration would drop its planned appeal. The Governor’s office no longer stands in the way of same-sex marriage. That development has relatively little to do with this year’s election, and lots to do with the election of 2016, when the Governor is expected to be a contender for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.

The Governor may continue to oppose gay marriage rhetorically – although the issue may well be moot by 2016. But his decision to abandon the appeals process means that he no longer is on the front lines of opposition.

And that decision tells us something about the strategy he will follow a year or so from now, when he is expected to begin campaigning for the presidency in earnest.

Chris Christie will not campaign as the favorite candidate of the Republican Party’s powerful social conservative bloc. This is the very same group that was suspicious of another Northeastern Republican governor, Mitt Romney, not to mention Arizona Senator John McCain. Romney and McCain won the GOP’s presidential nominations in spite of, not because of, their views on social policy. Both, like Governor Christie, were pro-life and were opposed to marriage equality, but neither campaigned as a fire-and-brimstone cultural warrior.

And neither will Chris Christie.

But there’s a big difference between those two failed candidates and New Jersey’s governor – a man the Star-Ledger praised as the greatest political talent on the national scene since Bill Clinton. Romney and McCain tried to keep all elements of the party happy, from the social conservatives to economic libertarians to anti-tax business groups. Neither McCain nor Romney walked that tight-rope well. The truth is that they lost their balance before they even made it past the primaries.

Chris Christie, on the other hand, is a master politician. He is not handled. He doesn’t come across as a robo-candidate. He is, to steal a line from George W. Bush, a decision-maker.

True, at a certain level, he is a conventional Republican. He vetoed a millionaire’s tax, he opposed same-sex marriage, and he is tough on homeland security. But he also signed into law a socially progressive drug court program and famously hugged President Obama in the aftermath of Sandy, an election-eve photo-op that infuriated many Republicans.

For most of his momentous first term, Chris Christie was able to balance the social conservatism of the Tea Party with the institutional and more moderate Republicans. But his decision to step aside in the gay-marriage fight shows that he wants to move to the middle at a time when the loudest faction in the Republican Party is associated with right-wingers like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

The gay marriage debate in New Jersey brought Chris Christie to a proverbial fork in the road – and he went left. Now get ready to watch him push Senator Rand Paul and Senator Cruz – both of whom are thought to be considering a presidential campaign in 2016 -- further and further to the fringes, and employ a divide and conquer strategy. Chris Christie is the real deal and is ready for prime-time.
Shane Derris is the assistant director of the Kean University Center for History, Politics, and Policy.

Shane Derris is the Assistant Director of the Kean University Center for History, Politics and Policy.