A few years ago, when I would talk to liberals in various cable news greenrooms across Washington, the general consensus was clear: Republicans ought to nominate Jon Huntsman for president.
My liberal pals were incredulous that Republicans couldn't see how much sense this made.
Of course, Huntsman quickly flamed out in the GOP primaries, something liberals tend to see as further proof the GOP is insane, rather than evidence that the Left was simply wrong on this one. And for the record, even if the GOP had nominated Huntsman, I'm quite confident he would have lost to President Obama in spectacular fashion.
Today, liberals once again have an unsolicited prescription for the GOP's ills: Nominate Chris Christie.
National Journal's Jill Lawrence encapsulates this sentiment well, writing, "Christie has a record 74 percent approval rating in his blue state, and 71 percent of his constituents think he deserves to be re-elected. That suggests broad appeal and a national future — but only if his party figures out how to embrace rather than shun people like him."
Don't believe everything you read, folks.
For one thing, being wildly popular at the state level (especially in a very blue or very red state) may not be the best predictor for national success. Upon entering the maelstrom of a heated national political campaign, the importance of such state-level approval ratings can quickly fade.
Sarah Palin had an 88 percent approval rating as governor of Alaska — a full 14 points higher than Christie's. We know how that one ended.
Sure, Christie can claim to have won over voters in a very blue state. But if winning elections in a blue state were all that mattered, why not nominate Olympia Snowe, who managed to get elected in Maine for well more than a quarter century.
Of course, Christie does have some conservative bona fides. As Joe Scarborough noted:
Christie… has done nothing conservative since his surprising win over Democrat Jon Corzine four years ago — nothing other than declaring war against the most extreme government union bosses, fighting for education reform across the Garden State,... [and] reforming and keeping afloat the state's dying public pension and health benefit programs by eliminating COLAs, increasing employee contributions, [and] raising the retirement age while saving the moribund system $120 billion over 30 years....
Hell, he only cut business taxes by $2.6 billion and created 100,000 new jobs over two years in his one state. Oh, yeah. He is also the first pro-life governor to serve in New Jersey since Roe v. Wade passed in 1973. [Politico]
Scarborough makes some compelling points, no doubt. But most conservatives also suspect that at least some of Christie's popularity in New Jersey is directly related to his willingness to throw fellow Republicans under the bus.
When he hugs Barack Obama just before an election and publicly criticizes House Speaker John Boehner (all to help his constituents, of course), he becomes more popular at the expense of the Republican brand. He is effectively saying, "I'm not like them." This buys him cover — enough cover to enact conservative policies at home.
And it's not just the public who loves this maneuver — the media laps it up.
Unfortunately, this model doesn't translate to the national level. At least, it hasn't so far. Just ask John McCain. The press adored the maverick in 2000 when he attacked "agents of intolerance" on the Right. McCain lost.
Eight years later, the press would turn on McCain — an outcome many believe will eventually repeat itself if and when Christie tacks right to win a primary and then becomes a serious threat to win the presidency (and defeat a liberal Democrat) in the general election.
Things aren't as simple as they seem. Christie is enjoying incredible approval ratings in a very blue state, but that's not nearly as predictive of a White House win as it may seem.
When CPAC says Christie has a "limited future" in the Republican Party, they may or may not be right. But the notion isn't nearly as absurd as it might sound to ears not familiar with the conservative movement and the Republican primary system.