Gov. Christie’s Obama problem

One of the most iconic images of the presidential campaign was that of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and President Obama, arms briefly locked, touring the damage from Hurricane Sandy.

Soon thereafter, Christie (R) praised the president effusively in a press conference, saying, “I cannot thank the president enough for his personal concern and compassion” and noting, “it’s been very good working with the president and his administration. It’s been wonderful.”

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While Christie vociferously denied any political import to what he was saying, critics on both sides, as well as much of the American electorate, seemed to disagree.

On Fox News, conservative critic Charles Krauthammer explained why the Obama-Christie moment was so effective: “That’s the kind of advertising that Obama couldn’t have purchased with $10 million, where he gets the picture of the most partisan opponent hugging him and praising him.”

Liberals, too, couldn’t believe their good fortune, as Daily Kos’s founder, Markos Moulitsas, wrote on his website: “There was a right way for a Republican governor to praise the president without giving him electoral aid and comfort.”

But that “electoral aid and comfort” was significant. According to exit polls, 42 percent of voters said Obama’s response to the hurricane was either an “important” or the “most important” factor guiding their vote, and seeing the Republican National Convention’s keynote speaker — and major Mitt Romney backer — lavishing praise on the president surely qualified as such.

The incriminating exit poll helped confirm what conservatives already feared, and once the sting of what had happened settled, conservatives’ stingers were squarely directed toward Drumthwacket — the governor’s residence in New Jersey.

Disgruntled Romney aides anonymously complained to various news organizations that the Christie hug had been a serious setback; conservative talk radio host Glenn Beck said on his program that Christie was “dead to me”; conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham openly mused about whether Christie might become a Democrat; and the Washington Times editorial page editor called on the GOP to excommunicate Christie for both his political record and “gratuitously complimentary statements” about Obama.

To make matters worse for Christie, he had to beat back allegations that he turned down a rally with Romney on the campaign’s final weekend and that he was bitter about a vice presidential selection process that ended up with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in the No. 2 spot.

Yet to understand the past month’s impact on Christie, it’s imperative to distinguish between his local and national ambitions. 

Christie is up for reelection next year in New Jersey — a deeply Democratic state that last voted for a Republican president over two decades ago. It’s not clear if Christie will run again, but to win, he’ll once again need sizable support from both independents and Democrats, and his praise of Obama is likely to help.

But Christie also has national ambitions and, like it or not, the 2016 presidential primary has already begun — and it’s a very different, much more conservative set of judges watching the governor nationally, as opposed to locally.

Ben Domenech, editor of The Transom newsletter and research fellow at the conservative Heartland Institute, thinks some of the Christie derision has been unfair but nevertheless underscores the tension between Christie’s competing aspirations. “His reaction to the hurricane may have saved his governorship but doomed his national hopes,” Domenech noted.

Those national hopes are further dimmed by the fact that, as Christie moves to the middle, probable 2016 opponents will be moving further to the right, which Domenech pegs as an ideological contrast that could hurt the governor.

One deeply plugged-in GOP consultant who asked not to be identified in order to speak candidly can easily anticipate a 2016 primary where Christie’s bear-hug with Obama is cloaked in the menacing robe of a black-and-white TV spot.

“I’m sure some of his consultants will freak out about how the bear-hug will be leveled against him,” the consultant notes, “but there are a lot of reasons why Christie would face long odds in running for president; if he does, the bear-hug won’t be one of the top ones.”

It’s true that Christie would face some conservative angst over moderate portions of his record, but the hug resonates on a more emotional level, because the entire nation — including nearly every GOP primary voter — was watching, and because it came just a week before an election Republicans were confident they could win.

But Christie also has his defenders — those who applaud his tour with Obama as a courageous move that will ultimately be validated.

Mark McKinnon, a former Bush strategist whose disgust with partisan politics led him to form No Labels — a nonpartisan grassroots group — thinks problem-solving, not partisanship, moves voters.

“Christie will be rewarded, in the long run, for putting the needs of his people before the ambitions of his party,” McKinnon says.

And even while warning that some consultants will “freak out” because of Christie’s “bear-hug and larger, non-physical embrace of Obama,” the GOP consultant referenced earlier guesses that ultimately, Christie’s performance will help him.

“Christie has a job to do, and the job is to govern — not be a Republican hatchet-swinger. Governing would not have been aided by doing what the conservative base wanted him to. Ultimately, if New Jersey recovers from Sandy well, Christie will be in a good position in his own state.” 

Meanwhile, Brad Phillips — president of Phillips Media Relations and founder of the Mr. Media Training blog — can foresee political opponents exploiting the bear-hug in a national campaign, but thinks both the context (the hurricane) and Christie’s communication skills can vindicate him.

Ultimately, it’s easy to make the case that Christie’s performance will be forgiven, but it’s also easy to make the case that his effusive praise for Obama will be remembered. Those are two easy things to imagine, but they make for one very difficult problem.  

Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill.  Find his column, GOP Presidential Primary, on thehill.com