With enemies like this, who needs friends?
On Tuesday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie again toured his state’s Hurricane Sandy-stricken beachfront communities with President Obama, a man he once spent the better part of a year trying to defeat on behalf of Mitt Romney and whom he once called “the most ill-prepared person to assume the presidency in my lifetime.”
All these barbs were forgotten by many Republicans, though, after the hurricane hit and the duo took their first tour of the shore. It wasn’t so much that the president visited. Sandy was a natural disaster, after all, one that affected millions of people, and New Jersey needed any help the federal government could provide. Rather, for conservatives, in the days after president’s visit and in the waning days of a hard fought election campaign, Christie seemed to go out of his way to heap praise on the president.
Conservatives were livid. Talk-show host Laura Ingraham suggested that the governor was preparing to bolt the GOP. The American Spectator proclaimed: “It is unlikely Republicans shall soon forget your perfidious betrayal.” After the election, Romney aides hung the campaign’s loss on Christie’s neck. The governor was defiant, saying Obama “earned” his commendation.
Fast forward seven months, and Obama is facing perhaps an even bigger challenge: an administration under siege, with a series of scandals threatening to derail his second-term agenda. So where does the president turn? To New Jersey, of course.
On a drizzly day on the Point Pleasant Beach boardwalk, Obama and Christie made an unscheduled stop at Touchdown Fever, tossing a football through a tire for a prize. They exchanged high-fives and man-hugs. Christie gave Obama a teddy bear he won with his pigskin-tossing prowess. The “bromance” gags were hard ones for headline writers to avoid, as Christie looked like the one Republican in the country who Obama could lean on when times got tough.
And if conservatives were willing to cut Christie some slack after he played the host in the wake of Sandy, they were left livid that the governor opted for an encore performance.
“I think Chris Christie should come down to D.C. to visit the damage caused by all the scandals,” said Brett Decker, editor in chief of the conservative website Rare. “If someone needs some consoling right now, it is the president, not the Jersey Shore.”
Decker added that because the president and the governor come from opposing parties, it is inevitable that their meeting will be viewed through a political prism, and that right-wing patience on Christie is running short.
“What it looks likes is that Obama has decided that Christie is his go-to Republican,” he said. “I think that is the biggest thing this is about. They get together, and Christie lets Obama use him as a photo-op.”
For Christie, the immediate advantage to palling around with Obama is clear. The governor faces an election challenge in November from state Sen. Barbara Buono. Even though he maintains a huge lead in polls and fundraising, New Jersey is friendly Democratic territory, and campaign aides believe the race will tighten.
Beyond that, the outlook gets murkier. Republican primaries are a lurch to the right, and photos of Christie and Obama are sure to be passed around by the governor’s opponents in Iowa and New Hampshire. The buddy show comes as Obama’s popularity with the GOP—never high to begin with—has hit a particularly low ebb, with congressional Republicans whispering about impeachment and few GOPers daring to do anything that Obama endorses.
“For conservatives, I think this reminds them of the last episode during the campaign. So there is some muscle memory there,” said Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak. “I think [Christie] will call himself a proud Republican who is conservative on a lot of things, but he has to resist the description of himself as a moderate or a squish Republican.”
Part of the appeal of Christie, and what makes him such a unique figure in American politics, is his deserved image as a straight-from-the-hip truth-teller. Embracing Obama in the waning days of the 2012 race was in character. Ignoring the complainers and doing it again was even more. But such an appeal has it limits.
“For Christie, part of why people like him is that he tells people where to go,” said Decker. “People like him thumbing his nose at convention, but you can’t constantly do that. Eventually you need a friend.”