Trump, Christie and the Revival of GOP Moderates
In a development which brought to an abrupt and screeching halt the momentum that Rubio supporters were touting (on Twitter at least) after Thursday night’s debate, Chris Christie has endorsed Donald Trump for president. No one who saw much of the two up in New Hampshire will be surprised.
Christie plainly never disliked Trump, whom he’s known for a decade. His attacks on him were those that an experienced governor would make naturally—“I tell everybody who goes to a Donald Trump event, if you get to ask a question, just ask him ‘how?'” Christie said. “I don’t care which of the things he talks about just ask him, ‘How? How?'” At town halls, he would refer to him as “Donald” and you could read a certain friendliness into the tone.
You don’t necessarily see it in soundbites, or even in the debates, but Christie is an enormously gifted politician. He knows how to talk, how to tell a story, has a strong grasp of policy, can connect with voters in a town hall more effectively than anyone I’ve seen. It wasn’t enough to overcome the legacy of Bridgegate, or the fact that the moderate-governor lane was crowded, or that the leadership of today’s GOP may be out of the grasp of any Northeastern moderate Republican not named Donald Trump. But he was noticed as a talent immediately after winning the governorship, and he was encouraged to run for president in 2012, and people of wildly different ideological perspectives (me, Jennifer Rubin) saw him as someone they could conceivably support for president. In one revealing Christie moment, he told New Hampshire voters that Rubio could have solved his “Gang of 8” immigration problem by simply telling voters he had looked more closely at the problem and changed his mind. I thought of that when, twenty minutes later, Christie launched into an absurdly hawkish interpretation of Iran and the nuclear deal.
I would guess that Christie felt his chosen profession was somehow diminished by the likes of Rubio. A man who could banter off the cuff endlessly with reporters and citizens was clearly irritated by being surpassed by someone possessing none of those abilities. Well apart from what he stood for, there was something fake about Rubio—the scripted answers, the avoidance of press gaggles. Christie had begun to talk about it in public a week before the final New Hampshire debate, making repeated references to “the boy in the bubble. ” He lowered the boom on the night of February 6, three days before the New Hampshire vote, denying Rubio a showing which might well have—given the party establishment’s wariness of Trump—catapulted him into a South Carolina lead. Now he’s done Trump another solid, providing far and away the most significant endorsement in the campaign season, coming at a critical time. I’m not sure a Trump-Christie ticket would be balanced effectively in any meaningful sense, but Trump really owes Chris Christie.
The liberal media (reinforced by the voices of Republican establishment) has been so busy seeking reasons to display shock and horror at Trump’s rise that they have largely missed that he is essentially a moderate Republican. Trump is relatively tough on the one issue that simply did not exist in the era of Rockefeller, Nixon, and Ford: mass immigration. Apart from that, he is politically of a piece with the latter three—supporter of substantial public works, not eager to take a knife to New Deal era entitlements, a law-and-order guy but certainly ready to accommodate both minority political aspiration and affirmative action.
In foreign policy, Nixon and Rockefeller were hawkish but not nuts about it. While Trump overstates his “antiwar” credentials, he clearly has learned something from the Iraq and Libya failures, which the Cheney-Kristol-Rubio wing of the party has not. Trump’s sense that the United States ought to at least try to present itself as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is well in line with mainstream Republican thinking until roughly 1992. A meeting with Henry Kissinger ought to appear soon on Trump’s public calendar; each would gain from it.
Christie’s endorsement obviously helps Trump in a tactical sense, days before the critical Super Tuesday primaries. It should do more in helping to define who Trump is and what his rise means. Populist, yes, kind of. Pro-working class? Well, certainly working class voters have been extraordinarily responsive to his campaign. But with what politicians, in what category, should he be grouped? On that score, we’ve seen an extraordinary amount of heavy breathing fright-mongering. But as the evidence mounts, the category that includes Rockefeller, Nixon, Ford, and now Chris Christie is easily the best fit.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.