Christie on New Jersey's DREAM Act: Despite what you see in Washington, government actually can work for you

That’s the money quote from today’s speech, which is right in line with Scott Walker’s approach and also in line with Henry Olsen’s populist prescription in the new issue of National Affairs. We’re two years out from the first primaries but you can already see the centrist Republican message taking shape. The tea partiers may be anti-government but the RINOs want smaller government that actually works:

Republicans and conservatives can succeed only if they come home to Reagan’s vision of America. That vision sees government as a danger but not an enemy, and looks for ways to make it useful rather than harmful to the advancement of a free society. It is a vision in line with the spiritual heritage of Lincoln’s Republican Party — one that gives average people a hand up, not a hand out.

Many conservatives fear that this vision means Republicans will become the second party of big government, but that need not be true. Enabling government to do what it should do also involves pulling it back from all that it should not be doing. Fully implementing this vision would create smaller government because, over the years, we have extended so many handouts to people in all classes who do not need or deserve them. Congressional Republicans have tried to rein in entitlement spending in recent years, but they have failed, in large part because they are using arguments that do not resonate with the majority of the electorate. If Republicans instead simply restored the historical hand-up approach to government, they could shrink the size of the state by as much as or more than their recent budget proposals have suggested — all while increasing the political appeal of the conservative agenda.

Finding this new path will require both new rhetoric and new policy. First and foremost, however, it requires a renewed emphasis on an old goal: helping the common man advance in life. This has long been the driving purpose of American politics and the stated aim of just about every successful political coalition in our history. But in many respects it has ceased to be the goal of the Republican Party, and it needs to become so again…

If conservatives can understand that they are the party of government by and for the people as opposed to the party that wants to repeal all government entirely — that they are the party of a hand up rather than the party of the handout or of hands-off government — then, and only then, can they continue to lead America further on what Ronald Reagan called mankind’s journey from the swamp to the stars.

Every statement Christie makes about his own administration for the next three years will include some contrast between Washington dysfunction and can-do blue-state Republican policymaking. Yes, even on immigration. Business Insider seems surprised to find him taking ownership of a hot button like the DREAM Act given that it almost singlehandedly popped Rick Perry’s balloon at the 2012 debates, but it makes sense strategically. Perry’s problem wasn’t that he embraced in-state tuition for young illegals per se, it’s that he did it while trying to present himself as the conservative champion who’d stop Romney. Christie doesn’t need to worry about that. His path to the nomination is to hold and then expand on Romney’s centrist “electability” voters from 2012 while hoping/trusting that the conservative vote will split among several candidates. Embracing immigration reform — modestly, for the most sympathetic class of illegals — will endear him to his base.

He’s unlikely to be attacked for it by the other candidates the way Perry was, too. Enough ink has been spilled about the growing Latino electorate that even conservatives like Ted Cruz who’ll take an anti-amnesty line if they run won’t hit Christie too hard for fear of alienating votes they’ll need in the general. (How mad at him can they get knowing that the House majority leader, who heads a caucus that includes dozens of tea partiers, has been working on a bill similar to DREAM for months?) If anything, it’s Christie who might relish the opportunity to attack. He can’t hit border hawks too hard either lest he offend conservatives he needs for the general, but I suspect he’s already angling to orchestrate a low-key “Sistah Souljah moment” with some DREAM opponent to impress independents, centrist Democrats, and Latinos. I’d be shocked, in fact, if footage from today’s speech doesn’t end up in one of his ads. He didn’t force a bunch of cute, fidgety kids to serve as his backdrop here just to impress Jersey voters who already reelected him.

Exit question: Will the GOP help enact some federal version of DREAM before the election? BuzzFeed had a piece yesterday arguing that immigration reform is dead this year, but read the fine print and you’ll see that they’re referring to comprehensive reform specifically. Small measures — like DREAM — are still in play. If it ends up passing, then Christie’s no longer the RINO outlier so much as he is the guy who was ahead of the curve.