New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) spoke at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference in suburban Washington on Thursday, and his remarks seemed reasonably well received by the crowd. That’s good news for Governor Christie, of course. He needs conservatives on his side to have a shot at winning the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
Well, maybe he doesn’t have to have them on his side so much as he needs them to not be in front of him, pushing back. The right has long been wary of Christie, seeing him as a moderate who is too eager to work with Democrats and questionable on social issues.
The Conservative Political Action Conference isn’t a definitive gathering of the right wing of the Republican Party. Its attendees skew young and male, and libertarian. Three of the past four years, libertarian champion Ron Paul has won the CPAC presidential straw poll, the announcement of which caps the conference.
That said, it’s closely watched by other conservatives for trends and draws a big crowd of Washington-based media. Last year, Christie wasn’t invited, and the snub was big political news. This year he was, perhaps on the theory that Bridge-gate has made him a target of the mainstream media, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend, etc.
In that context, Christie gave the crowd some of the attack lines they came for. He hit the media, saying the GOP shouldn’t let them define what the party is. He did his best to define himself as a conservative.
“We need leaders who are willing to say not only we are against Obamacare – which we are – [but] that we’re against higher taxes, we’re against bigger government,” Christie said.
Christie touted his own fiscal conservatism, saying New Jersey now has 6,000 fewer state employees than when he took office. He hit back at the Democrats' emphasis on economic inequality, saying, “We don’t have an income inequality problem, we have an opportunity problem in this country because government’s trying to control the free market.”
He also praised Republican governors for getting things done and said that he’s the only antiabortion governor elected in New Jersey for decades. He said the GOP has allowed speakers in favor of abortion rights at its national conventions, but the Democratic Party has not allowed the reverse.
“Tell me, sir, the last pro-life Democrat who was allowed to speak at a Democratic convention? By the way, don’t strain yourself, because there’s never been one. They’re the party of intolerance, not us,” Christie said.
Strictly speaking, this isn’t accurate. Antiabortion Democrats have been on the convention podium as recently as 2008, though it’s true they’re not exactly swamping the agenda.
Still, the “party of intolerance” remark is the kind of red meat the CPAC audience loves. While attendees were respectful of Christie at the start, they seemed to grow warmer as he went on and ended by giving him a standing ovation.
Christie “came to CPAC in need of a reception like that, and the party faithful delivered,” writes Eliana Johnson of the National Review.
How the reception at CPAC would translate into performance in 2016 primaries remains to be seen. There’s some evidence that Christie’s troubles with the Fort Lee bridge scandal have cut into his support across the board.
A new Washington Post poll finds that 38 percent of self-described conservatives say they “definitely would not vote for” Christie, for instance. Among Republicans as a whole, 30 percent say they definitely oppose the New Jersey governor.
That’s just one survey, and poll questions about future choices aren’t always truly indicative. But it still hints at a little voting problem for Christie if he decides to run.