Chris Christie, gay marriage, and the 2016 presidential race

With an eye toward the future, Christie positions himself against the "suicide caucus"

Chris Christie
(Image credit: (Andrew Burton/Getty Images))

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) on Monday abruptly dropped a challenge seeking to block same-sex marriages in his state, reversing his previous position that voters should decide the issue and removing the last roadblock to gay marriage in the Garden State.

A judge last month ruled that New Jersey must recognize gay marriages in the wake of the Supreme Court's landmark opinions earlier this year. Christie initially appealed the ruling and requested a temporary stay on same-sex marriages, but after being denied the stay, he has now withdrawn the appeal as well.

Christie did not have a sudden change of heart on the broader issue. In a statement, he said he "strongly disagrees with the court substituting its judgment for the constitutional process of the elected branches or a vote of the people."

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Rather, in accepting defeat Christie reaffirmed his image as a pragmatic Republican with bipartisan appeal. And in doing so, he distanced himself once again from the Tea Party wing of the GOP, taking a position instead as the party's most sensible hope for 2016.

Christie's move did have some ties to his imminent electoral prospects. The governor is comfortably in line to win re-election next month — a recent Quinnipiac poll showed him leading by a 29-point margin — but a prolonged fight against gay marriage could have thinned that lead come Election Day and made him appear, in retrospect, like a weaker candidate.

However, his decision more likely had to do with his future on the national stage. Much of Christie's pitch to national Republicans is that he has remained incredibly popular despite being a fiscal conservative in a deep blue state. The Newark Star-Ledger, in giving him a backhanded endorsement Monday, wrote that the governor is proof that "there is a sensible middle ground in America after all."

Digging in against the defining civil rights issue of this generation would cast Christie, uncharacteristically, as a "right-winger out of touch with the state," wrote Slate's Dave Weigel. That could pose problems for him down the road, Weigel added, because "anything that hurt his margin, and by extension his potential coattails for Republicans in legislative races, was more damaging to Christie's future than a cave on gay marriage."

Christie's about-face, coming on the heels of the government shutdown, also clearly juxtaposed his governing strategy to that of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and other Tea Party figures.

In the past month, Cruz embarked on a tilting-at-windmills mission to defund ObamaCare, triggering an implosion of the GOP's approval rating and fomenting a damaging intraparty war. Christie, meanwhile, acknowledged that he was withdrawing his appeal specifically because it had virtually no chance of succeeding. The court, he said, "has now spoken clearly as to their view of the New Jersey Constitution and, therefore, same-sex marriage is the law."

The move presented a "massive contrast in governing philosophies in the 2016 race," wrote the Washington Post's Aaron Blake. Christie was not only allowing same-sex marriage to move forward, but was also, in contrast to Cruz and company, "bowing to the political reality in a manner that the uncompromising Republicans base is likely to balk at."

That contrast could prove more crucial come 2016 than Christie's cave on same-sex marriage itself. Support for gay marriage is rapidly rising nationwide, and Karl Rove said earlier this year that he could see the next GOP presidential candidate supporting same-sex marriage.

With the GOP locked in a civil war to define the identity of the party, Christie has chosen to bolster his position as a pragmatic, sensible leader. Backing away from the fight on same-sex marriage could cost him some support from social conservatives if he chooses to run in 2016, but they were never going to be his natural base of support anyway.

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