Christie says no to gay-conversion therapy: Risky or shrewd?

New Jersey Gov. Christie is staking out positions that risk angering the GOP base. What could lead to victory in a blue state stronghold could also hurt him in 2016 presidential primaries.

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    Gov. Chris Christie (R) of New Jersey, here speaking during the Clinton Global Initiative America meeting in Chicago, Ill., on June 14, signed legislation on Monday that made New Jersey the second state in the nation to prevent licensed therapists from counseling gay and lesbian youths to change their sexual orientation.
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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie marched into the culture wars for the third time in four days Monday, signing a bill banning gay-conversion therapy for minors and making the state the second in the nation, after California, to outlaw the practice.

Saying government should “tread carefully” when it limits parents’ choices for the care and treatment of their own children, Governor Christie said he “reluctantly” signed the bill, because expert consensus says the practice – also known as “reparative therapy” – increases the health risks to gay teens, including depression, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts.

“I believe that exposing children to these health risks without clear evidence of benefits that outweigh these serious risks is not appropriate,” the governor said in a statement. Christie also cited the American Psychological Association, which, along with The American Medical Association and other professional organizations, has found the therapy harmful.

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Yet Christie’s approval of the ban comes immediately after he gave the go-ahead for the use of medical marijuana for children last Friday – a measure in which he cited parents’ freedom to choose as one of the most important reasons to allow minors to ingest the drug to treat certain illnesses.

The governor also vetoed a number of gun-control measures the same day, including a ban on a powerful rifle that he had previously supported – a decision applauded by gun-supporters.

It’s the kind of red-state-blue-state political shuffle that many observers see as crafty maneuvers designed to appeal to an electorate far beyond the left-leaning state. As he attempts to bolster his conservative bona fides with the GOP base, he is also trying to create distance from the perceived doctrinal rigidity of the Republican Party, especially on social issues, with the larger electorate he'll need in a general election.

Indeed, should he win this November’s race for governor – as most expect him to do easily – he will prove again his significant crossover appeal in a state President Obama carried by huge margins in 2008 and 2012. This would leave him well-poised to make a run for the White House in 2016.

“I actually think this plays to his strengths,” says David Mark, editor-in-chief of the online political site, Politix. “He can say, ‘I’m not beholden to anybody, I’m an independent, I go my own ways.’ It’s in the same line with his action on Hurricane Sandy last fall, when he embraced President Obama.”

Even so, many believe his ban of gay-conversion therapy comes with few political risks on the national stage. More Americans than ever before now believe people are born gay, according to a Pew Research study, and find this kind of therapy meaningless.

“I think in a strange way, the current state of anti-gay politics makes this relatively small potatoes,” says Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College in Manhattan. “One of the reasons I think that is because even among Christian fundamentalists, this particular conversion-therapy thing has diminished as a powerful issue.”

Just this past June, in fact, one of the most prominent “ex-gay” ministries, Exodus International, which used "reparative therapy" to help gay people convert to straight lifestyles, closed its doors and issued an apology for causing “trauma” to former participants.

“I think that closed the door on this issue,” says Mr. Mark. “I don’t think there’s much of constituency for it.... Even among social conservatives, who dominate the Republican coalition, this is kind of a fringe issue.”

Still, Christie expressed reluctance to sign this bill into law, and he vetoed a gay marriage bill passed by the legislature last year. The governor also filed a brief against gay marriage earlier this month in a case challenging the state’s current civil union provisions – even though New Jersey voters support gay marriage by a 2-to-1 margin, according to a Quinnipiac poll in July.

“He’s trying to run up his margin in New Jersey and defuse his opposition to marriage equality,” says Professor Sherrill. “And with his margin of his win in New Jersey, he thinks it is going to help him persuade Republicans around the country that he’s a viable, or a desirable, presidential candidate.”

And with his approval ratings approaching 70 percent, and with a 2-1 lead over Democratic challenger State Sen. Barbara Buono, according to the Quinnipiac poll, many believe the Republican governor will cruise to an overwhelming win in November. 

Such a victory in this solidly blue Northeastern state would boost Christie's claim that he can break what many see as the Democrats’ electoral stranglehold on the presidency.

But should he run, he is still expected to face a difficult gantlet through Republican primaries, dominated by social conservatives still angry at the governor’s praise for President Obama after Hurricane Sandy last year and wary of his centrist policies.  

“I think the most potent argument for the Republican primary for him is that he’s strong and tough,” says Sherrill. “He stands up for what he believes in, and I think this is something where he’ll say, 'Look, you may disagree with me about this, but I think this is right.' ”

Indeed, in a private speech before Republican leaders in Boston on Thursday, Christie argued for a strategy focused on winning, touting his potential crossover appeal. “For our ideas to matter, we have to win, because if we don’t win, we don’t govern. And if we don’t govern, all we do is shout into the wind. So I am going to do anything I need to do to win!” he proclaimed to the group, according to a recording of the event obtained by Politico.   

“He will campaign on the basis of his machismo, I think there’s no doubt about it,” says Sherrill. “And the final leg of the strategy is that he’s electable – that he was able to get elected and reelected by sizable margins in a solidly Democratic state.”

“The question is, whether voters in Republican primaries are going to be making strategic considerations about whether they want to win the election or not,” he says.

After all, electability was Mitt Romney's trump card, too, but Christie is hoping to stake out his positions early, claim the mantle of a common-sense conservative from the start, and trumpet his blue-state appeal in ways Mr. Romney never could.


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