Chris Christie's New Compassionate Conservatism

The New Jersey governor has a new cause: treatment, not prison, for nonviolent drug addicts. Can it soften his image—and the Republican Party's?

Associated Press

Republicans have an image problem. “Only 16 percent of Americans believe the Republican Party is compassionate,” Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, told a roomful of Christian conservatives on Friday, citing a recent poll. Voters, he said, see Republicans as fighting against things and Democrats as fighting for people—and, framed in those terms, it's no surprise people tend to prefer the latter.

Such angst was a common refrain at the annual confab of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group of right-wing Christians helmed by Ralph Reed, the remarkably resilient character you may remember from the Christian Coalition (in the 1990s) or the Jack Abramoff scandal (in the 2000s). Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator and presidential candidate, said the party’s message had grown “stale” and “out of step” with people who “don’t think we care about them.” Liberals love to talk about how Republicans haven't done much to make over the party since 2012, but no one, it seems, is more aware of this than Republicans themselves.

Into this dilemma strode New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, with a novel potential solution: liberalizing drug policy. The drug war of the past 40-plus years, Christie said, “hasn’t worked.” Instead, he said, “what works is giving those people—nonviolent drug offenders, addicts—the tools they need to be able to deal with their disease.” Christie drew a line between compassion for addicts and opposition to abortion: “I believe if you’re pro-life, as I am, you need to be pro-life for the whole life,” he said.

The idea of changing the way drug offenders are treated is said to be personal to Christie. In April, he gave a speech in New Jersey where he said he had recently lost a friend to addiction, and as governor he has expanded a program that allows the state's police officers to carry a naloxone, a drug that can reverse heroin overdoses. His championing of drug treatment also could, if it catches on, help solve some of Christie’s political problems, giving him a new topic of conversation other than the Bridgegate scandal and perhaps blunting the impression, fed by the scandal, that he is a blustering bully. Indeed, Christie’s demeanor at Friday’s speech was notably subdued, a far cry from the finger-wagging Jersey swagger he used to demonstrate.

But most of all, Christie’s embrace of this cause represents an innovative response to Republicans’ worry that they are losing elections because the public views them as inhumane. “You can’t just afford to be pro-life when the human being is in the womb,” he said. “You have to be pro-life after they leave the womb. And sometimes being pro-life then is messy. Sometimes it’s difficult, because human beings make bad choices—we are flawed.” As a political gambit, this issue could be Christie’s analog for the “compassionate conservatism” championed by George W. Bush in 2000.

Criminal-justice reform is in vogue for Republicans, some—but not all—of whom believe the party’s old tough-on-crime-at-all-costs platform is out of date, and see relaxing it as a potential source of spending cuts. Libertarians, who favor loosening drug laws as a matter of personal freedom, have gained influence in the GOP in recent years. (Christie, however, is not on board with marijuana legalization, and at a campaign event in New Hampshire later Friday he indicated that as president, he would crack down on the states that have legalized recreational pot.) Interestingly, Rand Paul, the self-described “libertarian Republican” Kentucky senator who is also a potential presidential candidate, spoke just before Christie on Friday. But Paul glossed over his own support for liberalizing drug laws, choosing instead to emphasize his opposition to abortion and love of Israel.

Christie clearly hoped to find common ground with social conservatives, a tough crowd for him on any day. Though he boasted about being the first pro-life New Jersey governor since Roe v. Wade and spoke of bravely campaigning on the courage of his convictions, he described himself as pro-choice earlier in his career. Christie also declined to have New Jersey continue appealing a judicial verdict making gay marriage legal in the state, another strike against him in social conservatives’ book. But if he runs for president in 2016, Christie must show that he can play to this type of crowd, which famously dominates the Iowa Republican caucuses and constitutes a substantial swath of the GOP base.

It was not clear that the Faith and Freedom crowd was particularly receptive to Christie’s overture. Just before he spoke, Gary Bauer, the longtime Republican operative and Christian-right activist, had gone on a well-received anti-marijuana diatribe. There was no applause during the drug-treatment section of Christie's speech until he ended it with a paean to the “culture of life” and invoked Pope John Paul II. Nationally, GOP bigwigs fret about whether Christie’s campaign will be doomed by the furor over the bridge scandal. But you get the sense that this crowd rather relished his downfall: After Christie spoke, the talk-radio host Michael Medved joked that some speakers were having trouble getting to the conference because some lanes had been closed. “Oooh,” went the crowd.

For many social conservatives, the answer to the GOP’s likability problem lies in reemphasizing social issues. Bauer, in his speech, marveled that Republican establishmentarians “actually believe cutting Social Security and no increase in the minimum wage is an easier political sell” than talking about protecting unborn babies and traditional marriage. Christie has different makeover in mind, and he is implicitly arguing that this new face for the GOP could be a winning one. “We need to be there even for those who stumble and fall,” Christie said. “We need to be there to lift them up.”