New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s conservative bona fides are coming under attack from the right, which questions whether he is too much of a Mitt Romney clone on policy to be the GOP vice presidential candidate.
For months, concerns about Christie’s personality overshadowed worries about his politics.
Now the worries are shifting to Christie’s politics. To be sure, nearly all conservatives nod approvingly at Christie’s fiscal management of the state and dramatic stare-downs of unions, but many doubt him on some signature issues that just so happen to be core to the conservative cause: judicial nominees, immigration and abortion.
Christie appointed Sohail Mohammed, a Muslim American who helped defend Muslim detainees arrested in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as State Superior Court Judge. It was a move that won Christie plaudits from the left but drew concerns on the right.
Christie told reporters at a press conference that he wouldn’t tolerate complaints about Mohammed’s role in defending the detainees or Mohammed’s ties to controversial causes and groups in the Muslim movement.
“Ignorance is behind the criticism of Sohail Mohammed,” Christie thundered. “It’s just crazy, and I’m tired of dealing with the crazies.”
His outburst was praised by the American Civil Liberties Union and made for some dramatic TV when Lawrence O’Donnell, the liberal host of an MSBNC show, actually gave Christie “the very first” standing ovation he’d ever awarded.
Earlier this year, Christie nominated a gay Republican mayor, Bruce Harris, to the state Supreme Court. Harris has been a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage, and conservatives reeled at how that might affect his rulings from the bench.
Matt Lewis, a conservative commentator for The Daily Caller, warned Christie’s judicial nominations “could derail his veep ambitions.”
Conservatives already distrust Romney’s approach to conservative jurisprudence. To many, Romney’s centrist record as Massachusetts governor portends a centrist administration and centrist judicial appointments. They hardly want a vice president who shares that mindset.
Christie’s record and rhetoric on immigration has been centrist, befitting someone who governs one of the most diverse states in the nation.
“Being in this country without proper documentation is not a crime,” he told a gathering of Latino leaders in 2008 while serving as the U.S. attorney in New Jersey. “The whole phrase of ‘illegal immigrant’ connotes that the person, by just being here, is committing a crime.”
NumbersUSA, a group that works to lower the number of immigrants entering the United States, gave him an “F” on immigration, which speaks to his pro-immigrant record.
Yet like Romney, Christie has recently seemed to get tougher on immigration issues — an evolution many conservatives welcome but still distrust. During a question-and-answer session at the Reagan Library last fall, Christie chided Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) for calling opponents of the Texas DREAM Act “heartless” in a presidential debate.
“From my perspective, that is not a heartless position,” Christie said of opposition to the act. “That is a common-sense position.”
Many conservatives agreed with Christie’s statement, but differ over whether the rightward move was pure politics.
Christie has provoked skepticism about the depth of his views opposing abortion rights. While making his first foray into politics in 1994, he acknowledged donating money to Planned Parenthood.
“I support Planned Parenthood privately with my personal contribution,” he said, according to a new biography, Chris Christie: The Inside Story of his Rise to Power. “It’s also no secret that I am pro-choice,” he continued.
Since then, Christie’s views on abortion have evolved, and he now considers himself pro-life. But his conversion on a position that is sacrosanct to many conservatives is bound to strike many as eerily familiar to Romney’s own evolution on abortion.
It’s hard to overstate how much these three issues — abortion, immigration and judges — mean to activists within the GOP, and Christie’s past rhetoric and positions put him strikingly at odds with a base that’s also never fully trusted its presidential nominee, Romney.
Indeed, in a National Review article last week, titled “Christie is not one of us,” commentator Andrew McCarthy said Romney would do better to pick as his running mate someone to his right.
“If the objective in making the pick is to improve Romney’s chances by balancing the ticket with someone more conservative than Romney, that purpose would not be served by selecting a near-clone of Romney,” wrote McCarthy. To him, Christie is that near-clone.
Disgruntled conservatives might be able to tolerate one Romney as their party’s standard-bearer, but two is another question.