January 19, 2020

Jersey boy ponders his home state’s governor

I was once a Jersey boy. I grew up in Nutley, N.J., just about 20 minutes from Manhattan. I still wear my T-shirt from Rutt’s Hut in Clifton, N.J. — known to many as the maker of the best hot dog in America.  

Even when New York City was the central core of Jewish America (before the rise of Jewish Los Angeles), New Jersey had its own Jewish world. Philip Roth, another Jersey boy, set his fiction in Newark, which was even closer to Nutley than the metropolis across the Hudson. Weequahic High School was then the Newark high school where the Jewish kids went.

So I’m all ears about the state’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie handily winning re-election and making the cover of Time as the biggest news story in his party’s 2016 presidential effort. Is the Republican resurrection at hand? Who knows, but it’s a big moment for New Jersey, if you also add in the media coverage of the African-American mayor of Newark Cory Booker’s recent election as a United States senator. 

I love my California, and its revival from dysfunctional cautionary tale to role model for blue states has been inspiring. New Jersey is a different case. It’s not the state’s success under Christie that is gaining attention; it’s Christie himself. In fact, the state is not doing well at all in economic terms, with growth and jobs lagging. But Christie appears to be just what Republican strategists ordered: a strong personality who can win votes outside the Republican base in a blue state. 

The national media, always in search of the elusive (and nearly extinct) Republican moderate candidate are already swooning. It helps that Christie is a very effective speaker and debater who keeps his opponents on the defensive.  

Christie has a definite Northern New Jersey/New York City style that both attracts and repels.  At its worst, it’s bullying; at its best, it’s toughness. (We saw both sides of that in Rudy Giuliani.) New Jersey voters seem to have shrugged off Christie’s rough edges and his well-known girth, and clearly Christie hopes America will see him the same way. It also helps that he is a devoted fan of Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.

New Jersey is a blue state that favors moderate Republicans (the old-fashioned kind, like the pro-choice Christie Todd Whitman) in the governorship. Republicans there have earned public support for being different from longtime urban Democratic machines in places like Hudson County. Jewish voters, who tend to favor political reform, were not at all uncomfortable with most of these Republican governors. The parties alternated governorships over the past 50 years.

U.S. senators are a different story. Only Clifford Case, a moderate Republican, held that office for any length of time beginning in the 1960s; the rest have been Democrats. So it’s not surprising that Democrat Booker swept into the U.S. Senate the same year as Christie’s re-election as governor. (And that’s one reason Christie spent $24 million of public money to separate Booker’s special Senate election from his own scheduled November race — to keep the focus on his own victory.)

The pro-life Christie is not quite as moderate as the traditional Northeastern Republicans in the Rockefeller tradition. He does not have achievements comparable to what Mitt Romney accomplished in Massachusetts in health care, although he did cross his party by accepting the expanded Medicaid funding under the Affordable Care Act. But he is a far better politician than Romney, with a much finer sense of his audience. Notably, Romney began running for president when he realized he had little chance of being re-elected as governor after his first term. While Romney did not wear well, Christie has.

Christie’s policies are not what bolstered his political fortunes. Instead, it was the disaster called Hurricane Sandy that gave him the chance to showcase his leadership, and his full-throated political embrace of President Barack Obama in that crisis saved him from a potential re-election challenge by Booker. Booker had been weighing a challenge to Christie but abandoned it after the governor’s post-Sandy surge, leaving the Democratic field bereft and guaranteeing Christie a runaway victory.

But, as Giuliani discovered when he tried to parlay his Sept. 11 leadership into a national campaign, Will Rogers might have been right: “Heroing is one of the shortest-lived professions there is.” 

It may well turn out that Sandy is Christie’s Romneycare — his one signal achievement, which also ties him to the most hated figure in his own party. Seeing the problem, Christie told Politico’s Maggie Haberman, “President Obama came in, he did a good job, I said nice things about him, so all the sudden, I’m a moderate … I’ve governed conservatively.”

Recall, though, how this approach weakened Romney’s case. By the end of the nomination phase, Romney was essentially implying to Republicans that he had misrepresented himself as a moderate to Massachusetts voters, who are a bunch of liberals anyway and who cares what they think, but conservatives could trust him because he was always one of them, a “severe conservative.” Go down that path, and you lose the trust of your old friends, and make your new friends suspicious. Christie’s other option is to challenge the ascendant right wing of his party to change its ways, but recent history shows that’s a tough slog.

While the pundits are gearing up for the battle among Christie, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, I think they are missing the point. Republicans are unlikely to actually nominate one of their many available crackpot wannabes, although they are likely to flirt shamelessly with them. Despite all their noisemaking, none of the 2012 contenders laid a glove on Romney, despite his wide array of vulnerabilities. They were not running for president so much as for a seat on Fox News, and as a result, they were more likely to fight each other to be the most visible right-wing voice than to systematically dismantle the determined and persistent Romney. Although we will have to see if Cruz is the exception, these folks are probably not Christie’s biggest problem.

The real challenge for Christie is whether he will lose his temper in an argument with right-wingers, as Rick Perry did when he called his opponents “heartless” for opposing immigration reform, or if he will face other serious Republican candidates more familiar, comfortable and at home with the Republican base. Without an incumbent in the race for the White House, the interest among serious candidates may be stronger than it was in 2012.  

Christie’s initial foray into the national public eye shows that he will work extremely hard to keep the focus on personality and leadership and not on specific issues that could clarify the contradiction between the conservative Republican base and the general electorate. Those who want to block him from the nomination will have to work hard to make him answer specific questions on the issues that divide Americans today.

For example: “Gov. Christie do you favor a path to citizenship for undocumented residents?” (He supported such a policy as recently as 2010.) Or: “Do you favor or oppose changing Roe v. Wade as specifically proposed by the 20-week period being proposed in Congress? Or: You vetoed a minimum wage increase in New Jersey that the voters then passed; would you veto a minimum wage increase sent to you by Congress?” Or: “A number of states under Republican control have passed laws to restrict access to voting; do you favor or oppose such laws?”

Christie will wait as long as he possibly can to answer such questions, but he may find that the Michael Dukakis route of insisting that the election should be about competence and not ideology does not work in a country even more ideologically attuned today than in 1988.

Beyond the question of Christie’s prospects, the continuing isolation of the Republican Party from the rest of the nation —  whether Democrats, independents or moderates — is the most important fact of American politics today. Pundits wish for a personality who can magically bridge the divide. The real challenge is not whether Christie can pull off appearing to be a moderate in New Jersey to win a big re-election, then become a conservative for the Republican base to win the nomination, and then become a moderate again in a general election, but whether the Republican party as a whole can adjust positions that are out of touch with the majority of Americans.

And so it all comes back to Jersey. With Christie and Booker all over the news, at least my childhood state will not be ignored and may for a time get out of the shadow of New York City. I’m all for that, and when you get back there, go to Rutt’s. Trust me; you won’t be disappointed.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.