Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential campaign bets big on straightforwardness, or “telling it like it is.” During Thursday night’s debate, the Christie press operation sent out one press release after another highlighting how Christie was “telling it like it is” on any given subject he happened to be addressing: “Telling It Like It Is On America’s Role In The World,” “Telling It Like It Is On Entitlements,” “Telling It Like It Is On Criminal Justice Reform.” He’s the tough dad who’s going to make you eat the meatloaf your mother put so much effort into cooking, damnit, unless you want to be sent to bed early. He will talk about difficult things, like cutting Medicare and Social Security, and you won’t like it, but the sheer force of his honest appraisals of the fiscal outlook will necessitate your submission.
The problem with this self-presentation is that Christie, right now, may be the least honest candidate in the race.
Christie is an exceptional performer. But as he’s risen in New Hampshire polls, he’s made himself a target for his fellow “establishment” rivals, each of whom is jockeying for that third ticket out of the Granite State. During the past couple of weeks, Christie rivals such as Sen. Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush have made hay over some of the more moderate positions Christie has taken to fuel his rise as a Republican leader in a blue state. Christie’s responses have either been to obfuscate or, as he did Thursday night before millions of viewers, claim that he did not do what the public record makes clear he absolutely did, over and over. Christie’s natural skills as a debater kept him afloat, but his mischaracterizations about his past will do far more damage in the long run—to whatever extent there is a long run for Christie’s presidential campaign.
Christie got the more memorable put-down against Rubio in the debate, when he told Rubio, “You already had your chance, Marco, and you blew it,” after Rubio had been criticizing some of Christie’s past positions. But Rubio did not blow it! He made a number of factual statements about Christie from which the governor will have difficulty escaping: “Unfortunately, Gov. Christie has endorsed many of the ideas that Barack Obama supports, whether it is Common Core or gun control or the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor or the donation he made to Planned Parenthood.”
Let’s run through each of these.
“Common Core has been eliminated in New Jersey,” Christie retorted. Christie was a strong supporter and early adopter of Common Core standards in his first term as governor, so already Rubio is correct in noting that Christie “has endorsed” the idea. When he decided he wanted to be president, he put the program under review. As Jessica Huseman writes for Slate, “New Jersey is still using the exact same tests as before, ones that are aligned with the exact same Common Core standards for what students should master by each grade level,” but he’s just not calling it Common Core anymore.
On gun control, Christie mentioned a number of the measures he has blocked. “I have vetoed a .50-caliber rifle ban,” he said. “I have vetoed a reduction this clip size. I vetoed a statewide I.D. system for gun owners, and I pardoned six out-of-state folks who came through our state and were arrested for owning a gun legally in another state so they never have to face charges.” It wasn’t always this way. When Christie campaigned in 2009, his campaign sent out a release saying he “supports the assault weapons ban and all current gun laws.” He says now that he’s “changed his mind” on guns and “learned a great deal about guns” since it became politically necessary to do so.
He credits his “experience as a federal prosecutor” for the shift, which is interesting in two respects. He already picked up that “experience as a federal prosecutor” when he was campaigning in 2009 and supporting gun control measures such as the assault weapons ban. And in 2013, when he signed a bill barring people on the federal terrorism watch list from owning guns—something Democrats in Washington are pushing for right now on the federal level, to strenuous Republican objections—what did Christie cite as his justification? “As a former federal prosecutor,” he said in a ceremony, “I understand the obligation of government to ensure the safety and security of its people.”
“I didn’t support Sonia Sotomayor,” he said Thursday night, flat-out. When asked on a radio show in 2009 whether he personally would have selected Sotomayor, Christie said, “She wouldn’t have been my choice, no.” Well, duh. He’s a Republican. But he supported her confirmation anyway. “I support her appointment to the Supreme Court and urge the Senate to keep politics out of the process and confirm her nomination,” then-gubernatorial candidate Christie said in a July 2009 statement. “Qualified appointees should be confirmed and deserve bi-partisan support. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito deserved that support based on their work as Circuit Court Judges. So does Judge Sotomayor. As a result, I support her confirmation.”
As for “the donation he made to Planned Parenthood,” at issue is a quote from 1994 to the Star-Ledger when Christie was running for county office and was asked about public funding for Planned Parenthood, which he opposed due to budget constraints. “I support Planned Parenthood privately with my personal contribution and that should be the goal of any such agency, to find private donations,” he said. Christie doesn’t lie about having been previously pro-choice, but he has little explanation for the “I support Planned Parenthood privately with my personal contribution” line. “I’m convinced it was a misquote,” he told the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin in an interview this week.
So, let’s review Rubio’s quote again: “Unfortunately, Gov. Christie has endorsed many of the ideas that Barack Obama supports, whether it is Common Core or gun control or the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor or the donation he made to Planned Parenthood.” Whether you consider these things important or not, Rubio’s quote appears to be true based on Christie’s past statements and actions.
Some are still entertaining the idea that Christie could be a viable “establishment” candidate if he can overtake Rubio and somehow pull off at least a second-place finish in New Hampshire. But the guy’s only barely begun to get torn apart by his competitors, and the stack of potential attacks—and Christie’s insufficient responses to them—is mounting.