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Eye On Candidates
January 5, 2016

Choices for the Establishment/ Conservative Voter, Part II: Chris Christie

Last week the Leadership Project for America started looking into the following question: Which candidate(s) vying for establishment votes would also be acceptable to those with a deeply conservative view on policy?

In considering voters who fall into both the establishment and conservative “lanes,” LPA assumed that (1) such voters would be looking for candidates with a mixture of experience, electability, and a strong commitment to enacting a conservative agenda, and (2) in areas where a candidate deviated from the conservative viewpoint, voters would have to evaluate whether the candidate would make a serious push on that issue and be likely to prevail.

For example, take former New York Gov. George Pataki, who recently departed the race. Among other things, he held views on global warming at odds with most conservatives, so it would have been a fair conclusion that since he spoke regularly about the issue on the campaign trail, he probably would have continued to push the issue if elected to the White House, and with a Democratic Congress he might have been able to move policy in a way deeply troubling to most conservatives.

The first part of this mini-series looked at former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, concluding that conservatives who disagree with him on Common Core probably don’t have much to worry about in a possible Bush presidency, but those who differ with him on immigration likely do. Today LPA examines New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, one of the four candidates generally seen as seeking the votes of establishment voters.

Chris Christie

In 2011 many conservatives expressed hope that Christie would enter the Republican nomination contest, seeing his blunt speaking style and his relatively conservative record at that time as the best option for conservatives looking for an alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. His record on taxes will please most conservatives, and he has succeeded in getting serious pension reform passed. He has outlined substantial reforms to both Medicare and Social Security, including reducing or eliminating benefits for wealthy seniors, that have long been promoted by many free-market and limited-government advocates.

His defense of and proposals for robust national security and anti-terror policies are consistent with the generally hawkish views of most Republicans, and he has supported conservative education reforms including vouchers, tax credits and charter schools. He is probably the most conservative governor who could ever get elected in New Jersey.

But there are several areas where his record will upset many conservatives, as these excerpts from his Leadership Project for America profile highlight:

While his broader commitment to fiscal discipline seems firm, Christie has offered industry-specific tax breaks, incentives and subsidies. He has also caught on to the trick of masking certain taxes as an increase in “user fees.”13

On immigration, Christie previously favored a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and in 2013, he signed legislation to allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state colleges, universities and community colleges. His own legislation has been titled the Dream Act, though it has a more limited scope than its federal namesake.31

Christie’s energy positions are mixed. He pledged to ban coal-fired power plants by 2021 as part of a more comprehensive plan to move to alternative energy resources. He has also authorized the expenditure of $100 million on tax credits for wind energy facilities. The credits are being dispersed through the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, whose board includes key government staff, private sector companies and trade unions….

Christie is a strong supporter of agricultural subsidies. As governor he signed legislation providing $96 million in grants for farmland preservation,40 and he also supports continued subsides to ethanol. At a March 2015 event in Iowa he said he supports the Renewable Fuel Standard, a mandate requiring gasoline refiners to include ethanol in their fuels.41

He vetoed legislation to create a state health care exchange but did back a plan to expand Medicaid in 2013.26

Christie’s administration has handed out massive subsidies and incentives to favored businesses, including $250 million to Prudential for a new office headquarters in downtown Newark42 and $82 million in tax breaks to the Philadelphia 76ers, a pro basketball team, to build a practice facility in Camden, N.J.43 According to one recent news article, Christie has dramatically expanded the state’s tax preference program, awarding more than $2 billion in the past year.44

According to one recent news article, Christie has dramatically expanded the state’s tax preference program, awarding more than $2 billion in the past year.45

Christie’s environmental advocacy has seemingly run afoul of individual states’ rights. He filed a petition in 2011 with the Environmental Protection Agency to force a Pennsylvania power plant to reduce its sulfur dioxide emissions and participated in a multistate lawsuit against an Ohio-based power company for coal-fired emissions….

Christie has supported gun control measures in the past, such as the 1994 assault weapons ban passed by Congress85 and New Jersey’s prohibition on concealed carry of firearms.86 As governor he proposed banning the sale of large-caliber rifles but later vetoed legislation doing so because he said it went too far in also confiscating rifles from people who owned them prior to the ban.87 He has expressed support for New Jersey’s existing gun laws, considered among the strictest in the nation,88 although he recently seems to have reversed course and favors some loosening of his state’s current laws, such as allowing domestic violence victims to receive expedited permits to purchase a handgun.89 He has said in a statement that he believes the Second Amendment protects an individual right to own and possess firearms.90 Following a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., Christie said that “in theory, I don’t have a huge problem” with proposals to ban gun sales to individuals on the government’s no-fly list, although he also said efforts to pass such a law were “cynical” and a “distraction.”91

While there is a lot to go through here, one issue that is highly likely to rankle many conservatives is Christie’s willingness to provide subsidies, credits, and other preferences for specific industries. As the above demonstrates, Christie has handed out billions of dollars to a wide range of enterprises, and pledges to continue doing so if elected. Given that doling out favors to preferred industries and constituencies is an extremely popular pastime in Washington D.C., there is very little reason to believe Christie would not continue the practice if he were elected president.

Another thorny issue for Christie is his expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare. Few issues rival Obamacare in its ability to rile conservatives, and more than any other issue, this could prevent him from gaining the acceptance of those conservatives inclined to support an establishment candidate.

Writing several days ago at the web site, conservative health care scholar (and current advisor to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the other candidates thought to be contending for establishment/conservative votes) Avik Roy had the following observation:

The vast majority of states under Republican control have refused to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. Gov. Christie, however, decided to implement the expansion. “Expanding Medicaid…is the smart thing to do for our fiscal and public health,” said Christie in February 2013. “Accepting these federal resources will provide health insurance to tens of thousands of low-income New Jerseyans.”

Christie argued that New Jersey taxpayers would save $227 million in 2014, because the federal government’s infusion of Medicaid dollars would pay for uncompensated care for the uninsured, and because some of New Jersey’s spending on Medicaid will be replaced by federal spending on Medicaid.

In Christie’s best-case scenario, then, it’s not so much that New Jersey will spend less, but that the entire country will spend more. Indeed, if you include federal spending, the New Jersey Medicaid expansion will increase U.S. taxpayer liabilities by as much as $25 billion through 2022….

Christie’s decision to expand one of the nation’s largest entitlement programs stands in contrast to his stated desire to reduce entitlement spending. “Every other national priority will be sacrificed, our economic growth will grind to a complete halt and our national security will be put at even greater risk,” said Christie earlier this year, in making the case for entitlement reform. But Medicaid is one of the entitlements causing all of those problems—and Christie expanded it under Obamacare.

Christie has spoken out against the rest of Obamacare (the exchanges, regulations, subsidies, and other elements that make up the core of the law), but Roy gets to the heart of the problem for the New Jersey governor a few sentences later:

Christie has repeatedly stated his desire to “repeal and replace Obamacare”—while simultaneously arguing that the half of Obamacare that is its expansion of Medicaid is a good thing. It’s hard to be an effective spokesman for the repeal of Obamacare if you’ve embraced one of the law’s central tenets. It would take Hillary Clinton less than 30 seconds to make mincemeat of Christie’s health care positions, as far as they have been disclosed, in a presidential debate.

Roy’s point is aimed in large part at many conservatives’ perception that Mitt Romney was hindered in 2012 by the fact that his own Massachusetts health reforms looked so much like Obamacare, reducing his credibility as an opponent of the federal health law. Would Christie be similarly hampered due to his embrace of Medicaid reform?

Roy also references another major problem for Christie, perhaps accidentally – Christie hasn’t really made his views on health reform known, other than opposing Obamacare (or at least the non-Medicaid-expansion half of Obamacare). In the absence of even a broad outline of what he wants to do on health care, similar to what many other candidates have offered (here, here and here), it’s easy for many conservatives to conclude he will accept other parts of Obamacare as well, or at least isn’t sufficiently knowledgeable of and predisposed toward market-oriented reforms to fight strongly for them if he makes it to the White House.

There is no clear answer to the question, “What could conservatives expect from a President Christie on health care?” Entitlement reform would certainly be a focus for him, given his statements on Medicare and Social Security, but would he repeal a Medicaid expansion he previously signed on to? Would his general lack of specificity on health care to date mean he would simply defer to whatever Congress wanted, with minimal input from him? Would he listen more to market-oriented reform advocates or those who see modest tinkering with Obamacare’s structure to be the right path? It’s impossible to know based on Christie’s record and statements to date.

For establishment/conservative voters, then, Christie would probably fall short in two key areas: (1) failing to rein in (and possibly expanding) the crony capitalist system that has grown over the past several decades and expanded dramatically in recent years, while (2) offering little in the way of health care reforms to roll back what many conservatives see as the single biggest expansion of government in recent memory. This combination could be fatal to his hopes of expanding beyond the establishment voters he seems to be attracting at the moment.