This morning marked the beginning of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, held this year in National Harbor, Md., just outside the Beltway. CPAC is to right-wing Republican activists what Comic Con is to comic book collectors and sci-fi enthusiasts, and it features its own parade of superheroes (they wear suits, not tights). One of the biggest and most controversial is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who spoke at noon.
Coming in, Christie was thought to face two serious problems, either of which might dim his obvious presidential ambition. The first was his role in the George Washington Bridge-closing scandal that has launched multiple investigations and given MSNBC a new purpose in life (that purpose being to fan the Chris Christie scandal). The second, arguably more problematic, issue was Christie’s palling around with Barack Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy during the final weeks of the 2012 presidential campaign—an act of apostasy that many CPAC-style conservatives blame for costing Mitt Romney the election.
Would Christie be vigorously booed and shamed? A couple of thousand conservatives and media members jammed into the convention hall to find out. Spoiler: He wasn’t booed. In fact, Christie’s reception was thoroughly positive—no protests, no catcalls, no booing at all, at least not within my earshot.
Christie wisely steered his remarks away from the division between moderate and conservative Republicans and focused instead on the divide between Washington Republicans and those in the rest of the country, which include notable successes such as Chris Christie. He began with a boast. On becoming governor, he said, he cut public pensions, drawing the ire of public employee unions. Christie described a trip to address a convention of angry firefighters, bragging that by the time he’d finished speaking he’d won over two-thirds of them. The lesson: “We’ve got to start talking about what we’re for, not what we’re against.”
Christie drew a line between Republicans who get things done and Republicans who don’t. The ones who don’t, serve in Washington. “What you see in Washington is talk,” Christie said. “They can’t stop talking.” Those Republicans privileged to serve outside the Beltway, however, are a different, stauncher breed to whom the party must turn if it wants to reclaim the White House. He made clear that atop his own hierarchy of Republican greatness stood governors like himself. “Governors are about getting things done,” he said. He cited Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who had also confronted public employee unions; Ohio’s John Kasich, who had challenged Democrats and brought the state’s unemployment below the national average; Florida’s Rick Scott, who’d overseen three years of job growth; and Michigan’s Rick Snyder, who’d made the home of Big Labor a right-to-work state.
Then he celebrated his own achievement of getting elected and reelected in a blue state Obama had won by 17 points. Christie ended his speech with a clever paean to electability, which just so happens to be his own greatest strength (provided those investigations don’t turn up a smoking gun): “We don’t get to govern if we don’t win.”
That seemed to persuade his audience, which responded with rousing applause. I’d guess Christie remains a long shot to win the CPAC straw poll on Saturday, although as perennial CPAC favorite Ron Paul can testify, winning hardly ensures you’ll be the next Republican nominee. What Christie will take away instead is probably more valuable: the apparent acceptance of the party’s right wing, which will make his own path to the nomination a lot easier.