So Chris Christie, the gregarious, self-confident Republican governor of mainly Democratic New Jersey, was in Tennessee on Friday — first in Memphis, then in Nashville — and did he, like Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte, two of the governmental role models he cited (jokingly we think) come, see, and conquer?
Well, if nothing else, he disarmed. The suspected bully-boy of the George Washington Bridge scandal, the take-no-prisoners chief executive, the presumed stalker of the presidency in 2016, laid on more charm than sarcasm or effrontery or rude ambition on his trip down south, and it’s easy to see how Christie, during his high school and collegiate growing up, was a serial student-body president.
And chutzpah? The man has lots of that, too. Unlike Lamar Alexander, the Volunteer State’s senior senator, to whom he gave a foursquare endorsement on Friday, Christie is not facing any immediate opposition from the hard Tea Part right of his party, but surely the White House aspirant knew he was being vetted from that quarter,
But, at both Alexander’s headquarters opening in East Memphis and before 1700 Republicans at the state GOP’s annual Statesman’s Dinner bash in Nashville, Christie refrained from doling out any fire-stoked red meat. Instead, he served a well-tempered smorgasbord of diversity, outreach, and collaboration across the political aisle.
And, to give Alexander his due, so did the home-state Senator, who, in introducing the visiting Christie before an enthusiastic crowd at his packed headquarters at the Carrefour Center on Poplar, chose to idealize the GOP as a big-tent party: “We’ve kept an open door, tolerated differences of opinion, and listened to everybody.”
That may not be exactly how Alexander’s primary opponent, state Rep. Joe Carr, an arch-conservative from Lascassas in Middle Tennessee, sees things.
And here’s how Alexander described Christie: “He’s proud to be a Republican, but he also is a good enough governor to earn the respect and support and votes of independents, Democrats, and Republicans, just as our candidates do in Tennessee.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this kind of moderate, middle-of-the-road rhetoric is generally what you hear from candidates who already own their party’s nomination and are competing for swing voters with someone from the other party.
And Christie, who spent a good deal of time encouraging his Republican listeners to do missionary work in “places where we don’t feel comfortable” and telling droll stories about co-exiting with Democrats in blue-state New Jersey, gave it right back in his own remarks at the headquarters opening:
“I want to stand next to people like Lamar Alexander as often as I can to remind Republicans, independent, and Democrats that the problems in our country are not partisan problems, they’re American problems, and we need to come together as a country to fix them. And we’re not going to do it by continuing to have the kind of divisive activity you see by some folks in both parties in Washington, D.C.
“The good news for Tennessee is, all of you are smart enough not to send anybody like that to the United States Senate… [Do you hear that, Joe Carr?] ….And let’s not start getting dumb like that now, okay? [applause] We don’t need to do that. Let’s not sgtart getting dumb now. Let’s stay smart, and Senator Alexander is somebody who brings people together.”
In a joint availability with Alexander, held afterward for Memphis reporters, Christie reinforced his basic message for Republicans (“We need to broaden our outlook to folks. Let the folks get to see you and know you”). The governor was asked to react to the fact that his appearance at the Statesman’s Dinner would be boycotted by some right-wing Republicans (notably state Rep. Andy Holt of Dresden, who publicly called Christie a “questionable political figure.”
Christie briefly flashed a hint of the scowl he reserves for those who challenge him directly but answered evenly: “I love a party where everybody’s allowed to have diverse opponents I think we’ll have a pretty good crowd there tonight, so I’m not worried.”
On to Nashville
And indeed, when it came time for him to face the Statesman’s Dinner audience in one of the several enormous ballrooms of the lavish new Music City Center convention complex Friday night, Christie gave the same sort of broad-based conciliatory message that he had in Memphis.
He explained how he befriended a Democratic adversary in the legislature, a Steelworkers Union president named Steve Sweeney, the very critic who had charged him with acting like Caesar or Napoleon (“all those great leaders of the past I admired so much,” Christie said, tongue in cheek), and how Sweeney became his partner in passing emergency economy measures.
“I don’t know when compromise became capitulation,” Christie said. “I don’t know when it became wrong to talk to the people on the other side of the aisle and become their friends.” Government functioned on the basis of “relationships,” he said. And that meant some give-and-take.
In telling how impasse was avoided in New Jersey, Christie chided those who had been ready, as he put it, to “shut down the government” rather than compromise. He worked on that theme for a while, keeping the focus on New Jersey, but it was clear that he meant also to reference the situation of last year in the Congress when Tea Party Representatives and Senators seemed prepared to shut down the U.S. government.
There was a curious division of rhetoric from the dais at the Statesman’s Dinner. The speakers who had preceded Christie — including Alexander, Senator Bob Corker, and Governor Bill Haslam (who introduced Christie) had pressed some of the usual conservative hot buttons and Corker, especially, permitted himself some critical remarks about President Obama (some of these, indeed, were echoed by Christie, who accused the President of indecisiveness and of being willing to fight for Obamacare “and not much else”).
But the tone of these early speeches did not seem hard-edged or didactically ideological. Alexander, in fact, reprised some of his open-ended sentiments from earlier in Memphis: “We opened doors, we tolerated differences of opinion, we welcomed everybody, and we gave good government. That’s how we got there [in positions of power in Tennessee] and that’s how we’re going to stay there.”
All of that led straight into Christie and his message of — what to call it? Muscular moderation, maybe. But after the New Jersey governor had finished, there would be a shift toward more dogmatic and contentious attitudes.
Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, for one, took the stage to argue for his current campaign to purge three Democratically appointed members of the state Supreme Court in August 7 retention elections And 7th District Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn laid out a congressional agenda that was pure Talking Points: Fix the V.A. “mess;” get to the bottom of “Bengazi” (a term that, believe it or not, had not been mentioned until then, virtually at the point of adjournment); and get rid of “Obamacare.”
The upshot of Christie's visit?
So which is the real Tennessee Republican Party? The pragmatic organization spoken to by Alexander and Christie, open to diversity and bipartisanship as a means to effective government? Or the vehicle for partisanship and radical change symbolized by Ramsey and Blackburn?
Toward the end of his remarks, Christie had looked out over the sea of people in Music City Center and confessed (or affected) some awe at the idea of “preaching to the choir” of some 1700 reported attendees. “Imagine a guy from New Jersey coming to Tennessee to preach to the choir,” he said. “But I’m here.”
Plainly enjoying himself, Christie — who has slimmed down considerably after undergoing a well-publicized stomach bypass operation a year or so ago — told the audience about how he’d been approached by two women that day, one in Memphis and another in Nashville, who greeted him the same way: “Governor Christie, my goodness, you’re so much better looking in person!”
Christie related how he’d sent a text message about those encounters to his wife at home in New Jersey, who had texted back tersely, “Good. Stay there!”
Lowering his voice to a stage whisper, the governor said, “I hope she was kidding,” and got the expected laugh.
There was just enough in this tease to remind one of the Clinton presidency and how that president’s sexual peccadilloes had worked for him in a curious way — giving him a -human dimension that lingered after the righteous head-shaking and disgrace began to wear off.
In a similar way, now that the shadow of the George Washington Bridge has begun to lift, the suspicion, even the intimations of outright evidence, that Chris Christie is not averse to playing it down and dirty, is hardly the worst trait one could imagine for an American chief executive in the age of Vladimir Putin and bad actors elsewhere in the world.
In any case, a very human Chris Christie had indeed been here in Tennessee, preaching a gospel of political toleration. The faint splashes of blue that are left in the political spectrum of Tennessee are, of course, not comparable to the darker hues that Governor Christie spoke of as representing New Jersey.
Yet here was Lamar Alexander sounding the same conciliatory notes in red-state Tennessee. Carr and Holt and other exponents of a harder Republican line wasted little time in denouncing what got said in Memphis and Nashville, and it’s going to be interesting to see how all of this turns out.