New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's announcement on Monday that his administration would withdraw its legal objection to gay marriage is only the most recent of his concessions to consensus. Being governor of a largely Democratic state means that Christie, whether he likes it or not, usually ends up being pulled to the middle on social issues. Most of the other Republicans in statehouses and the Capitol are being pulled the other direction, by the monotonous draw of Tea Party conservativism. Christie's well-positioned for November 2016 — if he can get past January 2016 first.
By now, Christie is the face of the left-most pole of the Republican party. There are more moderate Republicans, of course — but not many and none as visible. Members of the House and Senate are more partisan than at any point since the Civil War. There are so few moderates on Capitol Hill that the clearest, most laughable failure during the shutdown fight was a promised "moderate revolt" against the Tea Party — which gained only a handful of votes from Republicans. There are other Republican governors of Democratic states — Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania — but not one of a state that's as heavily Democratic. (New Jersey went for Obama by 18 points last year.)
Contrast Christie with the face of the party's far-right pole: Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Cruz is in the enviable position of not having to actually govern anything. He can fulfill the fantasy of the Tea Party without the tedious work of actually having to reach consensus. Given how vocal that wing of the party is, demanding fealty from Republican elected officials under the demonstrated threat of a primary from the right, the result has been a largely homogeneous set of policies. As Eschaton's Atrios asked on Twitter, "the policy differences between ted cruz and the most liberal republican in congress are?" That "in Congress" is an important qualifier, but the point is worth consideration.
Christie's (literal) embrace of Democrats isn't new — but don't be confused. The governor is by no means a Democrat, or even a "Republican in name only," the sword that the far-right dangles over those that are insufficiently acquiescent. The left-leaning Newark Star-Ledger offered its endorsement for his reelection, but only while outlining Christie's anti-progressive flaws. (Christie refused to meet with the paper for his entire first term.)
He is hostile to low-income families, raising their tax burden and sabotaging efforts to build affordable housing. He’s been a catastrophe on the environment, draining $1 billion from clean energy funds and calling a cease-fire in the state’s fight against climate change.
And so on. Unmentioned in the endorsement is Christie's push against the state's education unions — a push with which the Star-Ledger is sympathetic but which is not the sort of thing that will endear Christie to the Democratic mainstream.
Where Christie has walked a middle line, he's often found the most conservative way to do so. His administration opposed same-sex marriage in the state until the New Jersey Supreme Court insisted it be enacted. Only on Monday, after ceremonies were already underway, did Christie withdraw his opposition.
The pattern is similar on other issues. Christie fought an expansion of medical marijuana, until the legislature included several changes — and until public pressure mounted. "He kind of got backed into a corner by so much pressure," Ken Wolski, chief executive officer of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey, told Reuters. For most of his first term, Christie also opposed allowing undocumented immigrants to attend the state's colleges. Last week, he reversed that position, claiming that "an improving economy means that colleges can now afford to be more generous."
Outside observers were quicker to credit his longer-term ambitions. It may have occurred to Christie, The New York Times' editorial blog notes, that "he is well-positioned to be a prominent member of a pretty small group: Republican non-zealots who are willing to govern and to find practical solutions to problems, even supposedly toxic ones like immigration."
Christie's leadership over a Democratic state works to his advantage in both ways. For 2016 primary voters, those New Jersey Democrats will be an excuse, an I-had-no-choice-they-made-me argument for his moves to the middle. In the general, they become evidence that he can work with Democrats to solve problems, etc. The good news for Christie is that a progression from McCain to Romney to Christie makes a lot more logical sense than McCain to Romney to Cruz. The bad news is that Ted Cruz is shaping up to be a much more difficult opponent — and a much more unapologetically conservative one — than McCain or Romney had to deal with.
However unlikely it may be, Christie is the established voice of bipartisan consensus-building in the Republican Party. Only question is whether that's what Republican primary voters want to hear.