Last Thursday, former Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gave a speech at the Reagan Library that reminded me of why he inspired so much excitement in Republicans just a decade ago. Christie discussed the party’s future and scolded Republicans plenty, including indirect shots at former President Donald J. Trump.
In his speech, Christie urged Republicans to avoid the “quicksand of endless grievances” and start telling the truth. Christie’s shift in tone may come across as cynical opportunism, and perhaps it is. Still, Christie may be the only Republican with enough credibility with Trump’s base for them to listen to him while also shoring up the much smaller anti-Trump faction of the party.
Christie mentioned the challenges Ronald Reagan and William Buckley faced when confronting the John Birch Society extremists in the Republican base in the latter half of the 20th century.
The John Birch Society was an extremist anti-communist group that was most prominent in the 1960s. The society’s founder, Robert Welch, alleged the United States was 50 to 70 percent controlled by communists. Welch also alleged that President Dwight Eisenhower was part of a communist conspiracy.
The John Birch Society particularly hated Chief Justice Earl Warren — in part for his desegregation decisions — and posted billboards around the country calling for his impeachment in the 1960s.
Most disgustingly, the John Birch Society magazine, “American Opinion,” described civil rights protesters in Selma, Alabama as “a horde of termites” in 1965.
Christie suggested that yesteryear’s John Birch Society members had turned into today’s Republican extremists and conspiracy theorists.
Christie reminded the audience that Goldwater was too cautious about not wanting to alienate the base, so he was too light on the John Birch Society, much in the same way today’s top Republicans are too slow to condemn extremism in their own ranks.
The John Birch Society comparisons were blistering, but Christie’s most daring remarks were the indirect attacks on Trump. Christie said he was not interested in “bending to the will of any one person” at the expense of fighting for his ideals. All this is a bit rich coming from a man who went viral for looking like a hostage while on stage with Trump shortly after Christie endorsed him.
But I believe in people changing their minds, and the rejection of election results seemed to be a red line for Christie. In January, Christie said he would support impeaching President Trump for his incitement of violence on Jan. 6.
About halfway through the speech, Christie transitioned to “hard truth, well-told.” This repeated line was rhetorically effective because it contrasted itself well with his criticism of the lying endemic in the Republican Party.
My issue with Christie’s catchy line is that many of his “hard truth[s], well-told” were closer to half-truths, well-spun. For example, Christie conceded a point about fiscal responsibility, admitting his party had been less than perfect on that issue in the last few years where Trump regularly ran up deficits near a trillion dollars with ease.
But Christie’s admission of recent Republican fiscal irresponsibility is weakened because it implies that Republicans were fiscally responsible before the very recent past. For example, Reagan regularly ran up massive deficits during peacetime while expanding the size of government through increased spending.
Christie also said Republicans are the “party of law and order,” which stands athwart the fact that more than 140 Republican congresspeople voted to overturn the results of a legitimate election that did not go their way.
I found Christie’s truths a bit dubious, but I think these talking points could persuade an electorate that is generally far less partisan than me. The entire speech was vintage Christie: attacks on extremism in his party, common sense — or at least a good imitation of it — and blunt, heartfelt statements of belief. The acidic speech reminded me of the Christie who famously told a heckler to “sit down and shut up.”
So before you laugh off Christie as that stooge who stood hostage-like behind Trump in 2016, know that Christie won 51 percent of the Latino vote in New Jersey just eight years ago. He has a heart, a brain and the ability to unite the Republican Party while appealing to voters in the middle. For 2024, Christie may prove to be Republicans’ best chance and Democrats’ worst nightmare.