John Nichols of the Nation makes what should be, but is not (for reasons I’ll attempt to explain below), an obvious point about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie:

Christie also knows his party won’t be looking for a Northeastern moderate in 2016. The GOP has never been more conservative than it is now; and while the motivation to win may be powerful, the common wisdom among the folks who actually nominate presidential candidates says that experiments with supposedly “mainstream” figures like John McCain and Mitt Romney will not be repeated. So Christie is executing a delicate maneuver. He needs to run left this year to pump up his gubernatorial re-election vote numbers, and then pivot right in states like Iowa and South Carolina. Amid all the gamesmanship, it’s easy to lose sight of where Christie is really coming from—unless you look at his record.

Christie is no moderate. He’s a social conservative who opposes reproductive rights, has defunded Planned Parenthood and has repeatedly rejected attempts to restore state funding for family planning centers. He has vetoed money for clinics that provide health screenings for women, including mammograms and pap smears. He vetoed marriage equality.

Nichols goes on to declare that “Christie is at his most militant when it comes to implementing the austerity agenda associated with the most conservative Republican governors.”

By way of throat-clearing, I have a big problem with the term “austerity” being thrown at governors. Most states are constitutionally required to balance their budgets. Having done so, many states are now in a healthy fiscal position and should see revenue return to pre-recession levels this year. Critics of austerity at the federal level understood this all along. The anti-austerians, as I interpret them, aren’t against cutting spending always, anywhere, and everywhere; their argument was, and is, that contractionary fiscal policy in Washington makes our unemployment problem worse. In the face of state and local cutbacks, Congress should have been cushioning the blow.

But Nichols is largely correct: Christie is by any reasonable measure a fiscal and social conservative.

The perception that he’s some kind of squish or turncoat is a manifestation of the self-defeating tribal warfare between conservatives. Consider former Speaker Newt Gingrich as a counterexample: here was an ideologically unreliable loose cannon who, five minutes before the primary season, had embraced cap-and-trade and enjoyed a quasi-sleazy camaraderie with government-sponsored enterprises like Freddie Mac. Yet he made a big splash entirely because of tonal aggressiveness. As I put it months after he’d crashed and burned, conservative primary voters loved Newt (if only briefly) because of how much he loathed his secular-progressive-radical community-organizing antagonists.

His record, they could overlook. Because he was going to take it to the Left.

Romney’s record as governor was even more problematic. But the eventual nominee put his finger on the root of his primary troubles when he said he was “not going to set my hair on fire” to attract votes.

Chris Christie’s problems today are largely of this “hair on fire” variety. Yes, he’s “moderate” on immigration and guns. Those seem like big deals now, but I suspect they will be less so by 2015. Christie’s longer-term hurdle will be to dispel the notion that he is too solicitous of media favor and too complimentary of his opponents.

This is really quite something when you think about it: of all people, Chris Christie may not be enough of a jerk to satisfy the Breitbart right.