A day after it was revealed that the American Conservative Union was snubbing Chris Christie and not extending an invitation to him to speak at its annual Conservative Political Action Conference confab next month, the New Jersey governor bounded into the center of the auditorium at the Pine Brook Jewish Center in Montville, preceded by short, campaign-style video that ended with him intoning in the voiceover: “Sometimes you may look at me and think I am spoiling for a fight. Not all the time. But I will tell you this—I am going to fight for the things that are worth fighting for.”
Christie’s reputation for town-hall fireworks, you see, precedes him, and he likes to make winking references to it on occasion.
Before he even began his remarks to the 800 or so people in attendance, Christie noted that the location was not far from his home in Mendham Township, which afforded him the rare pleasure of sleeping in.
“This is bad news for some of the people who oppose our agenda, because this is the first time in a while that I am well-rested. And a well-rested governor is bad news for the other side,” he said.
The crowd, as if witnessing an escalating game of the dozens in a schoolyard, let out a quiet “ooooooooooh.”
And then, when Christie opened up the floor for questions—the portion of the program that has brought him whatever measure of YouTube celebrity he has—he took off his jacket, threw it to an aide, and reminded the audience that, “For the purposes of today’s meeting, we are all from New Jersey. We know what that means. That means that if you give it, you are getting it right back.”
But mostly, in what could be seen as a rebuke to those hardliners in Washington, Christie extolled the virtues of compromise. He told of trying to get an income tax passed through the legislature in Trenton. Lawmakers rejected the idea, preferring a property-tax cut.
“So I sat around for a little while and let their plan stew, and then I said, you know what, what do I really care? I think my plan is better, but you know what, some tax cut is better than no tax cut, so let’s go for their tax cut,” he said. “Let’s compromise.”
Christie was not extended a CPAC invitation, according to ACU chairman Al Cardenas, because he pushed Congress to pass a bill that would provide $60 billion in relief to people in the region affected by Hurricane Sandy and because he signed up New Jersey to expand Medicaid as a part of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Some GOPers still hold Christie responsible for Mitt Romney’s loss in the presidential race last year, after Christie was seen literally embracing Obama when the president visited storm-stricken communities in New Jersey. It didn’t help matters when he said that House Speaker John Boehner’s inability to quickly pass the Sandy relief bill was “why the American people hate Congress” or when he declined an invitation to speak at a rally for the Second Amendment last month.
There remains in certain conservative circles a sense that he will never really be one of them.
In Montville, Christie reversed course slightly, slamming Obama repeatedly. The president’s offense, however? Failing to figure out the C word.
“We have to find ways to compromise with each other,” Christie said. “The place is so dysfunctional, they so don’t talk to each other, they so dislike each other, that they can’t get to the common-sense point. I have said this all along with Jersey. I have argued all the time with the legislature. You heard me say a bunch of stuff about the Democrats in the legislature this morning. But I don’t have the luxury to hate. I have a job to do. You elected me to accomplish something, not just to occupy a space.
“I am not going to compromise my principles, because that is who I am, and that is why you elected me. But there is always a boulevard between getting everything you want and compromising your principles. There is always some space there, and the job of a governor or any executive is to find that space.”
Christie added that he knew it could be done.
“The reason I know it can be done is because I did it.”
And therewith, you have Christie’s answers to his conservative doubters.
Christie’s advisers do not think that his CPAC snub will prove much of a problem for him. The group is a pretty Washington, D.C., kind of outfit and doesn’t necessarily speak for movement conservatives in the country beyond, and certainly not in New Jersey, where Christie remains overwhelmingly popular.
Christie can never pull a Mitt Romney, governing as a moderate and then campaigning as a conservative—his image as the no-bull-taking pugilist won’t permit it. But Christie’s allies note that cycle after cycle, it is never the darling of the hard right who ends up winning the GOP primary—just ask Michele Bachmann, or Mike Huckabee, or Gary Bauer. Christie is the only Republican in the country who represents a full-on blue state, and by the time 2016 rolls around, there is a good chance that even rank-and-file Republicans in early-primary states will be hungry for someone who has proven he can win difficult elections.
And there is no sense that Christie is about to sacrifice his image as someone who governs as a strict fiscal conservative. One would not have wanted to be a New Jersey mayor trying to find a way around Christie’s property-tax cap, or a Democratic lawmaker in Trenton, or, God forbid, a public-sector employee in that audience at the Pine Brook Jewish Center. The first group he eviscerated for their craftiness, the second were cowards who couldn’t withstand the heat of his truth telling, but that third group, the bureaucrats, were, in Christie’s telling, a bunch of greedy paper pushers lining their pockets with the public’s money, especially in retirement.
“If we are going to pay these folks these exorbitant sums of money, you should be able to give it to them personally. I think that when one of these guys retires, we should have a little party down at the town hall in Parsippany, for instance,” the governor said to guffaws from the crowd. “Every person who lives in Parsippany gets to come in with their check for their share of the money. It would be like the wedding line! You would go in and you would say to them, ‘Great service, congratulations. Here is my $120 for your sick time.’ And at least then you would get a thank you!”
There remains in certain conservative circles some distrust of Christie, a sense that he will never really be one of them. If he wants to win them over, said Bob Vander Plaats, a conservative gatekeeper in the all-important early-primary state of Iowa, he will have to “simply be conservative. Lead with conservative principles and values. I think all of us are willing to forgive things in the past, because we all make mistakes, but if you want to reintroduce yourselves to conservatives, you can start by being a conservative, not just on fiscal issues, but on any issue that affects the family.”
Rick Wilson, a Florida GOP political operative, said the key for Christie is to recognize that winning a presidential primary is far, far different from winning the governorship of New Jersey. If he wants to endear himself to the Republican rank and file out in the heartland, he should change his tune on Obama fast.
“He could take the stick to the Democrats in Congress. He could kick the shit out of them, say, ‘Barack Obama did a great job in Hurricane Sandy, but here are 17 things he did today to fuck up America.’ There is not a market for a Republican to be a Democrat-lite these days.”
Christie seems unconcerned about the CPAC snub.
In Montville, one brave audience member asked simply, “I want to know what happened with CPAC.”
The governor said he didn’t know he hadn’t been invited until he saw an item about it on the news.
“They don’t want to invite me, that is their call. It is their organization, it is their business, and they can decide who they want to come and not come. It’s not like I’m lacking for invitations to speak.”