Christie’s Choice

June 4, 2013


Here’s something you need to remember about politicians: They think like, well, politicians. Which means that they are different from you and me.

So when a sitting officeholder is called to the great Electoral College in the sky, it takes no more than a nano-second for politicians to put aside their grief and begin plotting, scheming, and otherwise preparing for what comes next.

It may sound callous, but that’s how politicians think – and, frankly, that’s how they should think. Politics is about power, and when power shifts or changes hands, politicians have no choice but to adapt or perish.

The famous political philosopher Mr. Dooley (a fictional creation of the Chicago journalist Peter Finley Dunne) once said that politics ain’t beanbag. That’s for sure – it’s not a game for the sentimental or the thin-skinned. You might assume that Frank Lautenberg will be the center of attention at his own funeral, but in truth, all political eyes will be on Governor Chris Christie.

Christie, after all, has the power to name Lautenberg’s replacement, at least for the short term, and said he will do exactly that next week. Voters will get a chance to be heard later this year: A special election to fill the vacancy will be held on Oct. 16, with possible primary elections on Aug. 13.

The governor’s appointment to the vacancy could either be a caretaker – somebody with no intention of running in the special election – or a viable candidate in the special election, running with the title of “senator” attached to his or her name.

Christie’s dilemma – and make no mistake about it, it is a dilemma – comes down to this: Should he choose a Republican who will please conservatives in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and other early primary/caucus states? Or should he choose a more-moderate Republican who might have a fighting chance of keeping the seat in the special election?

A lot of Republicans to the west and south of New Jersey remain wary of Christie, and not simply because of his Sandy-related praise of President Obama last year, just days before the presidential election. Lots of Republicans criticized Christie keynote address at last year’s Republican National Convention because there was too much Christie and not enough Mitt Romney in the speech. And – to the Governor’s credit – he enraged anti-Muslim conservatives with his appointment of immigration lawyer Sohail Mohammed to a judgeship in Passaic County.

That appointment stirred up hatred from some of the usual suspects, including anti-Muslim activist Pam Geller, who said that Christie was “in bed with the enemy.” But even the well-known and respected journal Commentary published a piece charging that Christie’s “judgment on the issue of support for terrorism is highly questionable.” Christie dismissed such critics as “crazies.” That’s a fair description, but they very likely speak for a portion of Republican primary voters who are convinced that the U.S. is on the verge of ditching the Constitution in favor of Sharia law – just like Michele Bachmann, that paragon of truth-telling, predicted.

If the Governor decides to appoint a Republican with moderate positions on social and cultural issues, like, for example, state Senator Tom Kean Jr. or Congressman Leonard Lance, he might further alienate core Republican activists in the heartland – and, more to the point, in the early primary / caucus states.

But if Christie chooses a Republican more in tune with conservative dogma on issues like abortion and gay rights, for example, Congressman Chris Smith, and if Smith survived a primary challenge in August, Christie would hand the Democrats a gift when voters go to the polls in October.

Frank Lautenberg was not a big fan of Christie, to put it mildly. He would be amused, no doubt, to see how he has managed to put the governor in a difficult spot.

Scheming from beyond the grave? Yes, politicians really are different from the rest of us.