Christie’s Leadership of GOP Governors Elevates and Tests Him

  • Share
  • Read Later
Paul J. Richards / AFP / Getty Images

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, right, is interviewed by Gerard Baker, editor in chief of Dow Jones and managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 18, 2013

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie ascended to the powerful chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association Thursday, the latest step in what seems to be a carefully planned march to the 2016 presidential campaign trailhead. For Christie, the benefits of the perch are obvious: it provides a chance to rack up favors with his colleagues, meet swing state voters, and organize a massive donor network months before he is expected announce a bid for the White House.

But the job presents problems as well as opportunities .

While the new position elevates Christie, it’s going to force him to campaign for all of his party’s candidates, which Democrats will use to tie him to some governors’ conservative stances. Indeed on Thursday, as Christie told reporters his “sole focus over the next 11 months,” would be helping elect and re-elect Republican governors, the Democratic National Committee was tying him to the controversial positions of many of those same GOP governors, like defunding Planned Parenthood, opposing gay marriage, and mandating ultrasounds before abortions.

The spotlight itself has its pros and cons: the all-out effort on behalf of the governors will undoubtedly keep him in the news, but already allies are growing concerned that he is over-exposed.

And there are signs that Christie, who gained celebrity for his straight-talking exchanges with the people of New Jersey, is becoming more cautious under the national gaze. Twice in four days, the governor evaded straightforward policy questions. On Monday at the Wall Street Journal’s CEO council meeting in Washington, Christie refused to answer a question about how he would propose replacing President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. “I’m not going to sit here and go through a complex issue like that with 16:26 to go,” he said, gesturing to a clock visible offstage. When offered 14 of those minutes to discuss healthcare, the king of the sound bite demurred and blasted Washington politicians for offering sound bite answers to complex policy discussions.

On Thursday, an Arizona reporter at the RGA meeting tried to get Christie, who handily won the Hispanic vote in his reelection, to say whether he supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. It’s a tough one for a national GOP candidate: the party is caught between an angry base and poll numbers that show nationwide favor for immigration reform, and earlier this month, Christie dodged the question on Sunday shows. The reporter asked Christie to answer as a yes or no, to eliminate any confusion.

“By the way, it is very helpful you suggest how we answer the question too,” Christie quipped. “I really appreciate that.  Listen, the fact is we have a broken immigration system and it needs to be fixed and how it needs to be fixed will be determined by the national leaders in this country, starting with the president and the leaders in the Congress to sit down and come to a solution.”

When the reporter pointed out he didn’t answer the question or state his position on the issue, Christie replied, “Yeah, well, I don’t have to answer the question the way you want me to.”

This is quickly becoming a pattern for the Republican governor that cuts against his core argument to voters. As the Huffington Post’s Jon Ward writes, the previous Republican front-runner, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, saw his popularity plummet as he took controversial stances and shifted positions to try to curry favor. In response, the usually outspoken Christie has clammed up. To date, his celebrity status has insulated him from any political backlash — why engage in a political discussion when you can reach more voters on a comedy show. But if it fades, Christie could be in for trouble.