With the “Star Wars bar” of the Conservative Political Action Conference (in other words, a bunch of aliens) kicking off Thursday morning, it was no coincidence that among the first speakers were Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert, both known for their impulse to unleash hyper-partisan howlers that alienate anyone who isn’t a strident social conservative.
CPAC is useful because it clarifies the dividing lines of the GOP civil war. In the CPAC camp are co-sponsoring organizations like the Family Research Council, whose senior scholar recently stated that individuals who indulge in premarital sex should be “punished” by society.
On the other side of the GOP divide are figures with a demonstrated ability and determination to reach beyond the base and govern in a way that’s both effective and inclusive.
Chris Christie has become the symbol for the latter side, and for this, along with a multitude of other alleged sins, he was notably not invited to speak at CPAC, despite the fact that he’s one of the most popular Republicans in the country.
Christie issued an implicit rebuttal of the CPAC vision earlier this week at a town hall in Paterson, New Jersey. In a state that voted for President Obama by 17 points, Paterson is the bluest of blue districts. Four years ago, Christie received just 11 percent of the vote in the largely African-American city. But unlike other Republicans who avoid urban areas where they enjoy little support, Christie reaches out and plays offense, directly addressing that support deficit and sending the message that he is the governor of all New Jerseyans. The result was a minor classic, and a clear contrast with the CPAC purges of anyone who doesn’t toe the line perfectly.
In one highlight, Christie spoke about why he was speaking at such a Democratic stronghold by recounting the advice a former mentor gave him when a younger Christie questioned the wisdom of visiting The New York Times editorial board. “You’re going to get a beating over there,” Christie remembered saying. “He said to me, ‘No, no, Chris, you don’t get it.’ He said, ‘I’m going over there, because it’s harder to hate up close.’”
Those are “words to live by since then,” Christie recounted to the nodding audience. “The purpose of spending this time together is it becomes harder to hate up close. We realize we’re all human beings. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses. We all have insecurities. We all have our great successes and our disappointments. And as we get to know each other it becomes a lot harder to yell and scream at each other. It becomes a lot harder to storm away and not make a deal.”
This golden-rule-driven common sense has a revelatory quality in our current political environment, especially coming from a Republican. It’s the kind of logic that’s been MIA in Congress—a subject Christie addressed forthrightly next: “Unfortunately in Washington, D.C., ‘compromise’ has become a dirty word. Our entire system of government was based upon compromise. Our Constitution was formed based upon great big compromises between small states and large states, between the north and the south. Compromises. And I feel like you employ me to find those compromises that will help us to work together. Because, let’s face it, you voted for Republican governor and a Democratic legislature. I assume you didn’t do it just because you thought it might be funny to watch,” he said to some laughter. “I assume you did it because you wanted us to have both those point of views in the State Capitol and to have those point of views be working with each other to try to reach a reasonable conclusion.”
And that’s what Christie has done working with a Democratic legislature, closing deep budget gaps without raising taxes. And that’s what he came under conservative criticism for in the destructive wake of Hurricane Sandy.
“When I reached out after the hurricane for the president and the president and I worked together, there were people in both our parties who were criticizing both of us a week before a national election,” Christie said. “But what I know is this. My job is to work for the people who elected me and not to work for my political party first. My first job is for New Jersey, regardless of what party I belong to.”
This is the essential message that resonates with independent voters, which is why Christie enjoys 70 percent approval ratings from that political demographic in a state where registered independent voters outnumber registered Democrats or Republicans.
But don’t mistake this outreach for a failure to fight for principles. No one would mistake Chris Christie for a charter member of the kumbaya caucus. He took on one of the most passionately held issues in his conversation with these 600 Paterson residents, pushing back on the partisan accusation that he doesn’t care about public education because he’s tussled with the unions in the fight for education reform.
“This isn’t about saving money. This is about expanding opportunity and there’s nothing that angers me more in this job and I mean nothing … than going into urban school settings, watching kids fail, and looking at parents who say, ‘I have no option, Governor. I have no option but to send my child to this failing school. What can you do for me?’ And when I try to do something, we get nothing but opposition, based upon old, worn out BS. ‘The governor wants to eliminate the public schools. The governor doesn’t want to eliminate the public schools.’ What the governor wants to do is it have every child get a great education no matter where they live and if we can’t do it in the public schools, then you’re damn right, I’m willing to stand up against those public schools who are robbing you and your child of a greater future.”
This is tough talk that has the credibility that comes with being truthful. Christie backed up his beliefs with personal experience, by recounting how his parents borrowed money to move him out of Newark at age 5 just so Christie could attend a better public school. “If they hadn’t done that I wouldn’t be standing here today. I wouldn’t be the governor of New Jersey. And here’s what I think about. What I think about is how many kids are sitting in the public school, a failing public school today in Paterson? How many kids are sitting there in Newark? How many kids are sitting there in Jersey City or any of these other places who have all the God?given gifts to be governor someday, but won’t be because we didn’t have the guts to stand up and give them and their parents a different chance?”
Everything about Christie’s speech in Paterson would suggest a fool’s errand. Political consultants would discourage such a visit, warning that it could lead to embarrassment, going into the lion’s den of a city where he had virtually no support last time around on the verge of a new election. Criticizing public sector unions would also be seen as risky—a tone that is discordant to the assumed politics and sympathies of the audience. But by the end of Christie’s explanation about his fight for education reform—a fight that requires butting heads with teachers’ unions and getting demonized in the process—much of the audience was nodding in agreement.
It took the risk of intimacy, the risk of honesty, the risk of reaching out beyond the base. But the rewards were immediately evident. Christie’s success in New Jersey is a rebuke to the insular ideological obsessions of the conservative movement as embodied by CPAC. It is evidence of the success of a different path that can lead to winning elections outside red states and, more importantly, effective governance. So while other presidential aspirants court conservative activists, Chris Christie is showing how national elections are won and how political divisions can be healed—not by spineless compromise but by principled stands that put patriotism ahead of partisanship.